First Nations uni saved at last minute

In operation since 1985, the First Nations Technical Institute is the oldest Aboriginal educational institution of its kind in Ontario. With over 2,000 graduates, the school has around 320 current students in addition to its secondary school and after-school programs. Ninety per cent of FNTI grads find work and the institute hopes to continue its success for another 22 years. That is, unless it goes broke first.

On April 1, the provincial government announced that it would bestow a one-time payment of $1.5 million so the FNTI can stay open. The school was in danger of closing due to cuts in federal funding.

The federal and provincial governments have been quarreling over jurisdiction for some time. From the province’s point of view, the feds should fund FNTI because it is an Aboriginal institution. The feds counter that the province is responsible for postsecondary education.

FNTI was consistently funded by the federal government until 2004, with an annual budget of $2.7 million. The amount has now decreased to $531,687 for the 2008 academic year, not enough to keep the institute afl oat. The province’s money will keep the FNTI open for another year.

“For more than twenty years, the First Nations Technical Institute has helped Aboriginal people from this community and across the province find success through postsecondary education,” said MPP Leona Dombrowsky (Prince Edward-Hastings). “I am pleased that we are able to strengthen the partnership with the institute.”

FNTI is currently asking for $2.5 million per year with 2 per cent cost-of-living increases to make up for infl ation, a lesser amount than their 2004 funding and, supporters point out, in the context of a current federal surplus estimated at $2 billion.

“To say that this is a burden on another level of government is way off the mark, we’re talking about a small amount of money,” said Ken Marciniec, communications coordinator of Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario.

The funding crisis has FNTI’s students in quite a bind. How do you plan for graduation when your school might be gone before that happens? “It was a ridiculous situation for our students to be in, taking two-, three- and four-year programs and not sure if they were going to finish,” said Karihwakeron Tim Thompson, president and CAO of FNTI. “It’s pleasing that the province is

taking a constructive approach to intervene on behalf of our students for this year, we’re very encouraged by that,” Thompson said. But the reprieve, he knows, is only temporary. “FNTI’s hope is that a longer-term solution makes itself available long before Christmas break. We can’t be put in the same situation come the end of March next year.”

Columnists crack Canada conundrum

Sometimes Canadians get tired of talking about national identity. Luckily, a couple of opinionated New Yorkers were ready to take up the matter.

That’s exactly what happened last Sunday, March 30, when Maclean’s magazine brought Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik to Convocation Hall for a debate on that very subject.

The two staff writers for the New Yorker live full-time in Manhattan, but both grew up north of the border.

Gladwell, born in the U.K., graduated from U of T’s Trinity College in 1989 and worked for the Washington Post before being hired at the New Yorker in 1996. Gladwell wrote two best-selling books, Blink explaining the thinking behind quick decisions and The Tipping Point, which examined how “social epidemics” begin.

Hailing from Philadelphia, Gopnik, who has won three National Magazine Awards for his writing in the New Yorker, grew up in Montreal and attended McGill. Before this appearance, Gopnik and Gladwell had debated the Canadian system of health care published in the Washington Monthly in 2000.

In Saturday’s debate, entitled “Canada: Nation or Notion?” Gladwell presented the argument of Canada’s “small” international profile as a powerful advantage. In an example, he likened Canada to businesses operated by Chinese immigrants. According to Gladwell, being a minority outside of the mainstream allows one to be unburdened by the needs and considerations of a broad group of constituents, allowing one to “be mean” if necessary and forcing one to be connected on a greater scale in order to succeed. Gladwell added that he didn’t mean to imply these traits were inherent to Chinese businesspeople.

“That might be the best argument for the separation of Quebec I’ve ever heard,” Gopnik said of Gladwell’s remarks. Gopnik called his vision of Canada “notionalism.” Canada, he said, was not unburdened and mean, but encumbered by its history—why else did Toronto have signs in two languages when so few Torontonians speak or read French?

If Gladwell’s idea of Canada lurking in the wings of the international stage was a bit cynical, Gopnik’s notion of the country was downright sentimental. After sharing his love of the CBC and anecdotes about Don Cherry’s quixotic charm, he went on to define Canada in everyone’s favourite way: by comparing us to the U.S. According to Gopnik, U.S. nationalism is tied to “flags and fears,” whereas Canadian nationalism springs from “hopes and holidays.”

On a basic level, Gopnik’s argument for Canada as “notion” was yet another stab at giving the country a national identity—one, in this case, of common sense and inclusivity. Canada, he said, was not a place where people just come for the short term.

Among those seated in the front row were former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, her husband the acclaimed essayist John Ralston Saul and author Douglas Coupland, of jPod fame.

“What role or mission do we have—or should we simply be a happy little country fond of our habits?” Clarkson asked, opening the event’s question period. Gladwell responded by commenting on Canada’s need to speak up and serve as the place for experimentation. “I think it’s time for us to tell the world what we’ve accomplished and to experiment and show the world new direction. The world really needs that kind of example.”

Losing paradise

We have commenced our descent when a strong wind from the north pushes the tiny aircraft headlong into the mountain to our left. Soren, my partner and travelling companion, clamps his sweaty palm hard on to my thigh—he’s always had a fear of flying. As our plane touches down on the barely-paved runway, I breathe a sigh of relief. Surrounded by the lush tropical forests of eastern Panama, we make our way towards Immigration, which is really just a bamboo hut with a few benches. A local man stamps our passports, and children paw at the few bags we’ve brought. It seems like the whole village has made its way to the airport to welcome our arrival.

The Cormaca de Kuna Yala is the semi-autonomous home of the Kuna, located in the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. The region is only accessible by aircraft. Rough terrain, combined with annual floods and guerrilla activity to the east, has made it impossible to build roads. Consequently, the Kuna have flourished in relative isolation, maintaining political and cultural autonomy. The area’s inaccessibility has also led to the natural preservation of the ecosystem against development. Simply put, the San Blas Islands are the stuff of postcards. White sand beaches, windswept palms and tiny islands dot the rugged costal terrain. In the early 1980s, the Kuna put aside 60,000 acres as designated parkland, making them the first indigenous group in Latin America to do so. The creation of the protected area was based on their belief in “Spirit Sanctuaries,” a space where spiritual animals, plants, and demons reside. This system, in conjunction with the belief that all living things have a spiritual dimension, forms the foundation for the conservationist efforts of the Kuna people.

We board a dugout canoe outfitted with a modern motor engine on the back, and head for the tiny island we’ll call home for the next week. The Kuna pack their communities tightly onto the islands of the archipelago, reserving the mainland for agriculture and hunting. This technique protects the communities from the influx of malaria and yellow fever, which thrive in the jungles but have little impact on the coast. Our own island has seven bamboo huts. There is a communal space for eating and bathing.

Over the next few days our guide, Domi, takes us around the region. Sporting Guess Jeans and a baseball cap, Domi speaks little Spanish and even less English, telling us “the mangroves are the life force of the Kuna people. We use them for everything, for making rope, building houses, and to prevent erosion. Ukupseni relies of them for her nature. The mangroves are like a mother.”

Emphasis on the balance of the earth, and the great mother is made repeatedly throughout our stay. At the community gravesite, Domi explains the symbolism of the graves. The Kuna do not bury their deceased, but rather pile mounds of earth on top, posting sticks at either end. “The stick posts represent hammock posts, to help the deceased find comfort. The mounds of earth are symbolic of the pregnancy of the mother earth. The deceased will be reborn from the mother and into the natural world.”

I am taken by the myth of the Kuna tribe, at one with nature, in perfect balance and harmony. Miles away from the pressures of globalization, these people have carved out a sustainable existence based on coconuts, fresh fish, and local crafts.

On our final day in the San Blas, Domi wakes us up early and declares that we will visit the community. I am thrilled to see the life force of this impressive region. As our canoe docks at the tiny island, I immediately notice the hundreds of children. We walk down the dust-covered street between the rows of bamboo huts. It seems the entire community has come to greet us.

The children sport western outfits, belly tops, jewellery, some even have Ipods. Almost every girl over the age of twelve is pregnant. A cross looming at the end of the main street proves that the animistic traditions of the Kuna have long been put to rest. I look harder at the children. There is a glazed look in their eyes. One girl stumbles past me, a pop can in one hand, and a comb repeatedly pulled through her greasy hair. She must be about nine years old. I look closer. She’s high. On gasoline. I look around the crowd of children before us. They’re all high. Some of the adults too. I look at Domi who refuses to meet my eyes, a heartbroken look on his face. On our way back to the canoe, we spot a larger boat, docked at bay. Columbian drug runners on their way up the coast to Carti.

At night I curl up in my hammock, wind howling through the cracks of our bamboo hut. Tomorrow we will board a plane, back to the mainland. I wonder if I was naive to believe this place should be different than any other. I wonder if it’s my mere presence as a tourist that has rendered the dismal future for the Kuna. It’s dark now; there are no lights for miles. I sink further into the hammock and gaze up at the mystery above.

Don’t ignore the nitty gritty

As anyone involved in political activism can tell you, nothing derails a movement quite like a fight over tactics. U of T’s student movement is off the rails— in the face of a 20 per cent residence fee increase at New College, most students seem to be siding with President David Naylor.

While we exchange insults in the Varsity’s comment threads, important issues are getting lost. At the University Affairs Board Meeting on March 25, a group of senior administrators presented a report that could fundamentally change the way ancillary services are funded at U of T. The report articulated a “fourth objective” for residences at U of T: to bring in a profit.

At the moment, most residences operate at a substantial net loss. Since a relatively small number of primarily well-off students live on campus, it’s reasonable to suggest that commuter students should not subsidize residences. That means, ideally, that residences should break even. It doesn’t mean that they should fund other initiatives.

Residences can’t haemorrhage money the way New College does, so something needs to change. I’m not sure that change should come on the backs of students, especially students living in the decrepit Wilson and Wetmore halls. But the fee increase was only one item on that UAB meeting agenda. The university’s whole attitude towards ancillary services is changing, and in the long run, that is what will hurt students.

While we squabble, a precedent is being set. In the past, some residences have brought in modest profits. Those profits have funded residence expansion the right way: with a large down payment and a small mortgage. If this report’s recommendations are taken seriously, in the future, those profits will be put to use by the administration at Simcoe Hall.

Other changes may be on the way. The New College Residence Review Committee also suggested closing down 89 Chestnut to “increase demand and pricing power for remaining residences.” Another recommendation: scrapping the first year residence guarantee.

U of T has been underfunded for as long as you or I can remember. It’s no surprise that this administration is desperately seeking new streams of revenue. If the admin was really concerned with student engagement they would be open about their intentions. And If the student movement was serious about access, they would stop shouting for a few minutes and spread the word about all the nitty gritty policy changes that will ultimately make education inaccessible.

It takes a sit-in to make U of T listen

Students are against fee hikes. In campus-wide plebiscite in 2005, 98 per cent of U of T students voted against fee increases. And it’s not just students: according to a 2007 poll by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, 80 per cent of Canadians support lowering or freezing fees. Despite all this, the Governing Council votes every year to increase our fees. In fact, the university’s administration has vocally advocated deregulating fees entirely (calling it “self-regulation”). Yes, the federal and provincial governments are responsible, but when the university’s administration advocates increasing fees, it enables governments to continue with policies of inadequate funding. In a society where inequality is deepening, it also means complicity in perpetuating a cycle of poverty. Targeting the university’s administration is a focal point of many in the struggle for accessible education.

The administration continuously chooses to ignore student demands. They say hundreds of students are involved in decision-making, but how many are positioned to make decisive change? The Governing Council—U of T’s highest decision-making body—has eight student seats out of 50. Only four of these eight seats are for full-time undergraduates (including professional programs) over all three campuses. The other four are for part-time students and graduate students. Despite composing 10 per cent of the student population, international students are not permitted to participate. Elected student representatives, such as those on UTSU, which represents over 40,000 students, are regularly denied positions on Governing Council bodies. More blatantly, the university has always ignored decisions and recommendations of those governing bodies that are composed of a student majority, such as the Council on Student Services. CoSS has consistently voted down ancillary fee increases, but these decisions have been overridden by—you guessed it—the Governing Council, making CoSS’s efforts an exercise in futility.

This futility is evident in the process by which New College’s 20 per cent residence fee hike was approved. New College students and student representatives made numerous attempts through meetings and negotiations to stress their opposition. Jason Marin, president of the New College Student Council (NCSC), condemned the increase through a press release, and the treasurer of the New College Residence Council (NCRC) made it clear to the Governing Council’s University Affairs Board that NCRC did not support the 20 per cent increase. Rick Halpern, principal of New College, continued to assert that students were consulted before the decision was made. One can very well claim to consult sheep before leading them to slaughter.

Needless to say, we are not sheep. We are students and we will resist these formal avenues that have been designed to suppress—not facilitate— true student participation. As long as these structures continue to ignore the voices of students, we have no option but to escalate our expression of dissent. On Thursday, March 20, over 40 students staged a sit-in at Simcoe Hall—many of whom have been lobbying the administration for years. The students’ main demand was to speak with president David Naylor in person or by telephone. Students also asked for the proposed fee increases to be removed from the March 25 University Affairs Board meeting agenda and to be given 15 minutes at the meeting for a presentation and discussion of broader issues regarding the accessibility of education. Ultimately, the peaceful sit-in was met with physical aggression by campus police on the orders of senior administrators. Having consistently ignored student voices for years, the administration once more swept student concerns aside.

Students, workers, and community members will be meeting for an Open Forum on Monday, April 7 at William Doo Auditorium at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the inaccessibility of post-secondary education and the notion that education is a universal right for all. There will also be a rally outside of Simcoe Hall on Thursday, April 10 at 4 p.m., when Governing Council meets to vote on increasing fees. We have to come together and discuss these issues in depth.

Faraz Shahidi and Ryan Hayes are ASSU Executive Members

Students rally to abort ‘genocide’ demonstration

Along with the first robins, tulips and term papers, spring at U of T is marked by the arrival of anti-abortion activists. Around this time each year, U of T Students for Life and their off-campus allies break out a set of posters from the U.S. group Genocide Awareness Project and protest on campus.

This year’s demonstration was held last Thursday, April 3, at the corner of St. George and Harbord. The pro-lifers stood on all four corners, holding graphic posters equating abortion with slavery and the Holocaust. They were outnumbered about three to one by a coalition of pro-choice campus groups, including UTSU, ASSU, the Centre for Women and Trans People, the GSU, CUPE 3902, CFS-Ontario and the Steelworkers.

Jim Delaney, director of the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students, was on hand observing the demonstrations. Delaney makes a point of observing controversial events on campus.

“It’s simply useful to have a firsthand account of what transpired,” he said. In this case, very little did: “I did not witness any problems directed against either the group displaying the GAP materials, or against the counter-protesters.”

The university keeps tabs on these protests, usually attempting to negotiate their location ahead of time with U of T Students for Life.

“The university acknowledges the group’s to right to free expression. However, the rights of others who choose not to view the materials must also be respected,” said Delaney. Admin would prefer that the gory posters be set up in a circle or a tent, where students can choose to view them or avoid them.

But Students for Life isn’t having any of it—this year, they broke off negotiations with admin and set up shop on the sidewalk, which is not under U of T’s jurisdiction.

As fellow protesters held up their graphic posters, anti-abortion activist (and non-student) Rosemary Connell discussed the beginning of life.

“When you deny that a child is conceived, that there’s a child, right there, there is no other place to draw that line,” she said. “Who puts it there? Who puts it at 26 hours? Who puts it at two months?”

David Knight, a passing student who identified himself as prochoice, countered Connell: “You have to admit there’s a huge difference between a 24-year-old, sixfoot- two man and a collection of cells the size of a quarter.”

Connell claimed repeatedly that women who choose abortion are psychologically damaged by the experience. With adoption, she argued, “There isn’t that terrible, terrible regret, for the rest of her life.”

She also covered issues from capital punishment to the Terri Schiavo case.

“Terri Schiavo could smile, could communicate, the media didn’t want you to know that because we live in a very anti-life society,” she said.

The mood at the counter-protest was upbeat, with cheers greeting a call of “20 years of reproductive choice in this country!” Chantal Sundaram, a CUPE 3902 staff rep, said the counter-protesters were well-received by passing students.

On other campuses across North America, Jewish student group Hillel has demonstrated against GAP’s Holocaust comparisons. Hillel was not available for comment. Sundaram, however, did take issue with the GAP materials’ juxtapositions.

“It’s just such an insulting comparison to anyone who has in any way been affected by actual genocide, whether it’s the Holocaust or any other sort of terrible calamity that they’re drawing a parallel to,” she said. “It’s disrespectful to the real victims of those events.”

A tale of two fellowships

Two researchers from the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry were the recent recipients of The Canada Council for the Arts Killam Fellowship. Professors Elizabeth Edwards and Molly Shoichet were selected from a nationwide list of nominees, honoured for their outstanding research. This prestigious award, valued at $70,000 per year for a two-year period, will allow both professors to continue their work. Following this amazing win, AISHA GREENE sat down to speak with each professor about their careers, research, and how they aim to take science from the lab to your doorstep

Molly Shoichet

Upon entering the office of Professor Molly Shoichet, you immediately notice a picture of the last Rick Hansen’s Wheels in Motion community fundraiser, featuring Shoichet and the graduate students within her lab that took part. This event began with Rick Hansen, a Canadian paraplegic athlete and activist for people with spinal cord injuries. It has been important to the Shoichet lab over the last few years—for them, this event connects them to people afflicted with injuries and diseases the lab attempts to understand and find novel therapies for. Shoichet acknowledges that for her lab it has given them a “broader sense to their research,” where they can learn and interact with the general public.

Though researchers today are gaining a better understanding of the complex mechanisms which control the central nervous system, Shoichet is leading the way in devising novel regeneration strategies to treat spinal cord injuries.

Professor Shoichet—who holds the Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering and is also a member of the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto—began her undergraduate studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As an undergraduate student in the department of chemistry, Shoichet recalls the intensive hands on research opportunities she took part in which ignited her interest in scientific research.

Following graduation, Shoichet applied and was accepted to both medical school and the graduate program in polymer science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Initially, Shoichet deferred her acceptance to medical school so that she could explore the option of medical-based research at UMass. Ultimately, it was her thirst for curiosity and a desire to devise answers to questions surrounding human health and disease that motivated her to remain in research.

“In a sense, it was like discovering the future of medicine, while ultimately advancing our knowledge about disease,” said Shoichet.

Even today, she is at the forefront of emerging medical technologies: Shoichet’s Killam project, entitled Three Dimensional Presentation of Immobilized Growth Factors to Guide and Control Cell Differentiation, will utilize tissue engineering to build three-dimensional scaffolds upon which stem cells can grow.

To Shoichet, the acceptance of this Killam fellowship has deeper meaning, since the nomination of this award was made by her peers. It not only acknowledges the significance of her work, it also highlights the support of her colleagues and graduate students whom have made her work possible.

Though Dr. Shoichet acknowledges that they are years away from understanding and implementing these techniques within humans, one can only marvel at the possibilities behind this current research.

“[Our work] will bring together the fields of biology and engineering as a means to guide where cells grow and influence how they decide their ultimate fate.”

Elizabeth Edwards

For Professor Elizabeth Edwards, academia was in the blood. With two professor parents, that drive for curiosity was bound to rub off. After gaining a Master’s degree in science from McGill University, a chance occurrence while employed at Seagram’s (makers of wines and spirits) helped to solidify her research focus. At the time, a neighbouring plant in Waterloo closed down for having large amounts of trichloroethene (TCE)—an industrial pollutant linked to dry-cleaning solvents within their well water. This incident prompted Edwards to consider studying environmental engineering, where she could combine her microbiology experience from working at Seagram’s with the idea of bioremediation (the use of naturally occurring microorganisms in the soil or water to break down pollutants) to combat environmental toxins.

However, following a PhD at Stanford University, Edwards began to notice a shift in the research community.

“We have always known that microorganisms exist within our soil and water…but what had become clearer over the years [was] that there was a ‘natural attenuation’ of contaminated sites,” said Edwards.

Nature’s ability to repair itself, and the fate of pollutants within the environment began to impact Edwards’ research. Novel organisms that specifically degrade chlorinated solvents and monoaromatics (such as the compounds benzene and toluene) under anaerobic (non-oxygenated) conditions were identified and sequenced. Edwards’ lab was one of the first to show that as a mixed microbial culture, the metabolism of one type of these dechlorinators was highly specific for degrading TCE, yet its activity was dependent upon the dynamics of a complex community setting.

During the Killam fellowship endowment period, one question that Edwards hopes to answer is why this community as a whole is so effective at breaking down chlorinated solvents. Her project, Bioremediation in the 21st Century: Contaminant-Degrading Processes Revealed through Metagenomic Analysis of Microbial Consortia, will look at the DNA of microorganisms within this community.

“If we can understand this community dynamic, we may be able to ‘tweak’ the overall metabolic rate of some of these organisms,” said Edwards.

The end result of such manipulations for the long term would essentially change the current ways in which we treat polluted soil and water.

Though the chemistry behind these mechanisms of de-chlorination— and more specifically benzene metabolism—are still being clarified, commercial entities have already begun the use of mixed microbial communities to treat the lingering affects of industrial waste products.

The future looks very promising in the field of environmental engineering. What continues to motivate Professor Edwards is not only understanding the metabolism of these mixed cultures, but also how she can affect the overall social good of our community. She acknowledges that her work and inspiration would not have been possible without the support of her colleagues and graduate students with whom she says she stands shoulder to shoulder with.

“I learn more from them everyday. This award not only honors me, it acknowledges the great work of my students,” said Edwards.

Quebec isn’t the only player in the Conservative constitutional controversy

The Conservatives may be biting off more than they can chew. In the most recent controversy involving Quebec, voices from within the Conservative caucus have given credence to the possibility of the Harper government opening up the Constitution to enshrine new clauses for Quebec, providing that the Conservatives win a majority in the next election.

But is this just a way for the Conservatives to reach majority seats in Quebec, as they did in the heyday of the 1988 Progressive Conservative government, or is this a genuine approach to appease the province that once sought secession from Canada? Word from within the party caucus has described the party debate as incredibly heated. Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn has said that there is a definite possibility of his government opening up the Constitution for Quebec’s gain. Blackburn also raised ideas of winning 30 to 40 seats in the province purely as a result of this promise. Emphasizing the need for a focused goal, Blackburn ruled out Liberal gains in the province. This, he said, has sent a message to Quebeckers that “people will choose between the Bloc Quebecois and us.”

The issue of extending powers to Quebec through the opening of the constitution can go in two directions. Canada stands by the democratic principles of federalism, whereby exclusive powers are given to each province that separates each one from the government. But there’s a limit to how far these powers should extend. It is beneficial for Canada to willingly recognize Quebec as a prominent province, however this recognition needs to be limited. Certainly giving more powers to Quebec would bind the referendum-happy province with Canada, but what about the other provinces?

The government should be concerned how the remaining provinces in Canada would react if an exclusive agreement was granted to Quebec. There should be a mutual relationship between the provinces and an assurance that the provinces outside of Quebec will receive equal consideration for their own unique identities, instead of focusing federal attention on Quebec.

It is still premature to predict the outcome of granting extended powers to Quebec—though the Conservative government has since denied these ambitions—but it’s likely that the rest of Canada would have mixed feelings.

Provisions should be taken to appease all provinces, preventing Quebec from abusing these powers. Quebec would certainly have a stronger sense of federalism if they had more autonomy within the country, since it would make calls of separation somewhat moot. However, too much power may anger other provincial leaders. Opening up the Constitution shows weakness on the part of the federal government—they’d be seen as being subservient to the province and may hurt Conservative numbers come election time.

Conservative have lofty ambitions for a majority government, and a key to this is gaining more seats in Quebec. The federal government’s desire to triumph in future elections may or may not bring Quebec closer to Canada, but giving Quebec special treatment is far too likely to raise concerns from other provinces.

For now the Conservative government has declared the issue closed, but that’s likely to change when it’s election season once again.