When particles collide

This past August, the University of Toronto hosted the 21st annual Hadron Collider Physics Symposium, where the first results of the Large Hadron Collider were presented and shared amongst particle physicists.

This year, the results included the reappearance of particles captured by previous particle accelerators, as well as evidence that the LHC can capture higher energy particles than expected. The event represents the obstacles overcome by LHC over the 20 years of its development — from vast feats of civil engineering, to firing up experiments that will hopefully explain the universe’s earliest stages.

The LHC is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator (and fridge: the inside of the LHC is -271°C, making it colder than outer space). It is owned by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and is located in Geneva, Switzerland. The LHC is a 27 km long underground tunnel, composed of two general-purpose detectors, CMS and ATLAS.

The detectors are essentially enormous cameras designed to take snapshots of particle collisions at a rate of 40 million frames per second. As for information flow, the amount of data collected by the LHC can fill 100,000 dual layer DVDs every year, solving the mystery of the relationship between physicists and caffeine. The LHC works by launching two beams of protons (or “hadron” particles) at 99 per cent the speed of light, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and — you guessed it — smashing them to analyze the resulting particle decay.

These high precision proton beams are monitored around the clock by scientists such as U of T physics Professor William Trischuk, a TRIUMF scientist and ATLAS team member. The beams inside the accelerator must be controlled so that they do not stray and cause damage to the device. In fact, it is crucial that precautions are taken for any part of the LHC, because technical problems can delay the operation for months. One such incident occured in 2007 with a broken magnet, and again in 2009 when scientists discovered vacuum leaks.

The results from the LHC are significant to the study of physics because there are many contentious issues that lie unresolved regarding the make-up of the fundamental building blocks of the universe. What we learn from the LHC may very well confirm or destroy the Standard Model of Particle Physics, the current model of the elementary particles that make up all matter.
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To give you an idea of what’s at stake, replacing the Standard Model of Particle Physics is probably harder than doing a decathlon, learning Icelandic, and sitting through Gigi. If that’s not enough, throw in river dancing and completing a degree in Engineering Science. All before breakfast.

A hot topic that comes to mind when people think of the LHC is the Higgs boson particle. The Standard Model has already gone through many trials testing the kinds of particles that constitute it: leptons, quarks, and the force carriers (such as the photon). However, the mass of these particles, especially the Z boson and W boson, relies on the Higgs boson as the key to the origin of particle mass.

According to U of T Professor Pierre Savard, a TRIUMF scientist and ATLAS team member, the Higgs boson is not made up of anything. It is the simplest particle with no spin and no electric charge.

An interesting detail about the Higgs boson is that it generates a Higgs Field. John Ellis of CERN describes the Higgs Field as analogous to a field of snow in which heavy particles that travel through the Higgs Field leave a bigger imprint than lighter particles do. The reason why some particles are heavier than others is simply due to how much they interact with the Higgs Field.

Despite this and other captivating images the Higgs may generate, it is important to keep in mind that the Higgs boson is not the sole answer to the origins of the universe and life itself. The coining of the Higgs as the “God Particle” by Leon Lederman, director of Fermilab, unintentionally creates a misconstrued perception of the Higgs in the mass media.

As experimental high-energy physics professor and ATLAS team member Robert Orr confirms, this colloquial definition of the Higgs is not very descriptive of what the Higgs really is. The Higgs may have “god-like” power in confirming or disconfirming the Standard Model, but it is not scientifically accurate to assign it an alias with religious connotations.

According to Professor Trischuk, “Finding the Higgs boson will confirm the Standard Model of Particle Physics as an accurate description of the universe — or at least until the model starts to break down before the precise moment of the Big Bang.” The Higgs theory will work until it is falsified using the LHC. And so for now, the Standard Model currently holds. However, a good example of an LHC-tested and disproved theory was that Earth had magnetic monopoles.

There are many exciting and terrifying conclusions that will result whether or not the Higgs is proven. If the Higgs is found, physicists will have to continue to better understand the nature of the Higgs and its ability to explain particle mass. But there are many theories that might remain unanswered, such as gravity, which continues to puzzle physicists.

It is also unknown whether the discovery of the Higgs will solve the great problem of missing mass and dark energy in the universe. Even if the Higgs is found, it will be some time before scientists are certain that it is a fundamental particle.

As Professor Savard points out, it is still not clear if quarks are fundamental particles. Quarks are point particles, meaning that physicists cannot see what is going on inside them. “For now the quark is a point particle, but we are not sure if it is fundamental,” says Professor Savard. “Looking at the history of particle physics, we see changes from the atom to the proton and neutron, and so on. So there is still a chance that the Higgs may be made up of more particles.”

Although it is very unlikely the Higgs will be found in the near future, this may be good news for busy particle physics professors. “If we find the Higgs, then I need to write new lectures,” jokes Professor Savard.

Given the question of what he believes students should take away from the LHC, Professor Savard replies that students may benefit from expanding their minds to harness the relationship between the “infinitely small to the infinitely big” in our universe.

Professor Orr eloquently adds that students can learn to appreciate the way the universe is “subtle, beautiful, and we’re only starting to learn how it works.”

Decline in essay assignments

Increased class sizes and a decrease in the number of teachers and teaching assistants has forced professor Robert Brym to replace essays, short answers, and any written work from his first-year sociology class, with multiple-choice tests and exams.

“Essays are critically important to an undergraduate education,” said Brym, whose experience in having to assign few essays is not uncommon. A recent survey released by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations claims that the no-essay trend is a provincial problem.

“Multiple-choice is really just asking you to retrieve empirical information. An essay requires you to have a thesis, a plan, and a clear line of thinking that pushes the intellectual boundaries of a student to think critically,” said confederation President Mark Langer.

The report surveyed 1,400 professors, of which one in three claim that classes have become so large they have been forced to push the essay aside and succumb to solely multiple-choice testing.

Associate Chair of the English Department Nick Mount has also noticed what he calls a gradual decline in essays. “It has gone down from the amount it was in the past, though, over a period of 40 to 50 years. Back when I was an undergraduate I had to write an essay every two weeks.

“As a faculty member, I would say: I want more essays, more TAs, and smaller classes,” said Mount, “But as associate chair, I know how finite the resources are, and I know how hard we are struggling to maintain our standards with the resources we have. It’s hard. There’s no two ways about it. I think so far, we are holding our own. If we dip much lower it’s going to be hard.”
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Professor Mount has continued to assign three essays a year for his first year English courses. “I don’t really think a student learns how to think unless he or she is doing the thinking themselves.”

Brym has cut essays in SOC101 due to a lack of a labour pool to mark 1,400 essays, a reality brought on by university-funding decisions. “The money is not being squandered. Other courses are more expensive to teach. For example, science courses with labs use expensive equipment. However, the university has apparently decided to allocate very little money to [the course] Intro Sociology…. A colleague of mine at McMaster teaches an introductory sociology class the same size as U of T’s but she has 22 TA’s compared to my seven.”

“The increase in class size is not a force of nature,” explained Professor Brym. “It’s a result of provincial funding cuts and internal, administrative priorities, and decisions.”

Tutorials to Brym’s course have also been cut. “There are few tutorials — just seven this year, which is not enough…. Students used to attend a tutorial every week. That means they would have something like 20 tutorials a year. We’ve been cut to a third of the old rate. That being said, the cutback happened years ago.”

Mount acknowledges that there are ways to continue critical thinking in the classroom, but stresses that the essay is a crucial part of the education process. “Discussions and tutorials in class also help contribute to a student’s development to think critically.”

Langer adds that this critical thinking is central to the true role of universities. “We are not only churning out people to have careers…. We are also training people to think critically. In a democracy it is important to have an informed and critically thinking citizenry.”

Brym suggests that this shortcoming may be addressed through creative thinking from the university. “We could hire senior undergraduate students to work as TAs. Those who have done well in the first year course could be trained as teaching assistants and perhaps even receive a course credit for their labour.

“It really comes down to how much the administration is willing to invest in undergraduate education.”

New buses added to Mississauga Transit fleet

MiWay, the new Mississauga transit buses and routes, have been designed and developed to make the commute to and from the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus more comfortable and convenient.

Students travelling to UTM on the 110 University Express (City Centre Transit Terminal – UTM – Clarkson GO) or the 101 Oakville Express (Islington Subway Station – UTM – Oakville Core Terminal) will be able to experience the new blue MiExpress buses starting on October 4. There will be 10 new hybrid-electric buses dedicated to running on these routes regularly.

“Students will enjoy more comfortable seating, reading lights, power outlets for laptops and larger windows,” Patricia Runzer, a marketing representative for the City of Mississauga Transportation and Works Department, told The Varsity.

On Wednesday, Sept. 8, UTM students got a sneak peek of the new fleets before they hit the streets, reported UTM’s campus newspaper, The Medium. The bus was parked outside the Student Centre with Runzer by its side.

“We’re here to show off our new buses and to show students our new name,” she said, adding that students seemed to be most excited about the power outlets.

The modern features offered on the bus may be a plus for students but, also appealing about this new transit system is the reduced wait times between buses during high-traffic periods.

MiWay will be offering two types of service to UTM: MiExpress (blue buses for express travel to UTM via routes 101 and 110) and MiLocal (orange buses for local travel via Routes 1C and 44).
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On September 6, just in time for back to school, the MiExpress Route 110 University began departing from the City Centre Transit Terminal every eight minutes during the morning and afternoon rush hours, and every 17 minutes during the midday rush. From the Clarkson GO station, the buses now leave every 15 minutes during the rush hours, and every 34 minutes during the midday. In the evening, buses depart stops every 30 minutes. The MiExpress Route 101 Oakville Express departs from stops every 20 minutes during rush hours only.

Director of Mississauga Transit, Geoff Marinoff, said the 42 new blue express buses will serve passengers traveling on Mississauga’s current network of five express routes that extends across the city and connect to popular destinations “such as the Islington Subway Station, Westwood Mall, Meadowvale Town Centre, City Centre Transit Terminal, Clarkson GO Station, University of Toronto Mississauga campus, and the Airport Corporate Centre.”

These new buses and bus routes are part of Mississauga’s Bus Rapid Transit project in partnership with GO Transit, and will ease commuting throughout the GTA. The $249 million BRT project is currently underway and scheduled to begin operating in 2013. The project is planned to create an 11-mile dedicated east and west corridor running alongside Highway 403, which will allow for faster travel between Oakville, Mississauga, and Toronto.

“This transit project is unprecedented and the largest the city has undertaken in its history,” said Mayor Hazel McCallion in a press release to the City of Mississauga. “It represents the future of Mississauga and our Council’s commitment to develop transit. The BRT will give people more and better transit options and help support continued growth.”

Muhammad Riaz, a first-year commerce student, is one of the students who will benefit from MiWay. Riaz told The Varsity he is looking forward to the reduced wait times and dedicated buses.

“The buses coming more frequently and having set routes to help UTM students will definitely make my commute easier,” said Riaz, who commutes from the Square One area.

As evolutionary as this transit system may be, it does not seem to be convenient for some students or employees commuting to UTM from within Mississauga’s borders.

Zamour Johnson, 18, who works in the food court on campus and is considering attending UTM next year, said MiWay doesn’t make his commute to work easier simply because the route doesn’t pass through his neighbourhood at Mississauga Rd. and the QEW.

“There aren’t any direct routes to UTM on my side of the city which makes it incredibly difficult to get anywhere if I don’t have a ride by car,” explained Johnson.

These new buses also won’t help nor hinder Nicole Ferreira’s commute from Toronto to Mississauga. Ferreira, a second-year student double majoring in geography and geographical systems, takes advantage of the free shuttles offered from the St. George campus to UTM. However, as a vegetarian and self-proclaimed green activist, Ferreira admires the city of Mississauga for its switch to hybrid buses.

“The UTM campus actively promotes the importance of maintaining it’s clean, green environment despite being built in the centre of a forest it holds much of what it took from it,” she said. “I love the campus because of that so adding these routes plus hybrid/electric makes it so such more awesome for me to say ‘I go to UTM.'”

A mobile site which will display the next three departure times or the full schedule for any day of the week for any bus stop in Mississauga will be available for smart phones soon. An Iphone application is also in the works.

For more information on the new buses or routes, visit miway.ca

A head start on tax season

With all hustle of back-to-school, taxes are the last thing students want to think about. The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario has released their annual tax tips for students. The tips are essentially a list of options, benefits, and credits available for students, which can turn into tax deductions or even some extra money.

“Many people, notably students, believe that if you don’t owe any taxes, you don’t have to file them,” says Jennifer Horner, a senior manager specializaing in national taxes at BDO Canada. “This is true, but you would be missing out on future benefits as well as immediate benefits in not doing so.”

If students have a scholarship, or living, moving, or transit expenses, they are eligible to file a tax return. If a student’s income is lower than $10,382, there is the added bonus that they won’t actually have to pay income taxes.

Post-secondary students are eligible for a non-refundable tax credit to assist with textbook costs. “The textbook tax credit is calculated based on $65 for each month a student qualifies for the full-time education tax credit, and $20 for each month the student qualifies for the part-time education tax credit,” said a media release from the Ontario Chartered Accountants.

Students can also receive tax credits for moving expenses and transit expenses. Even if students are not expecting a tax refund, filing a tax return could prove beneficial in the future. “Students with earned income should always file a tax return because it will generate Registered Retirement Savings Plan contribution room,” said a media release from the Ontario Chartered Accountants.

If a student does not claim their tax credits, they can transfer the cost of tuition fees to any supporting parent, grandparent, or spouse, who can then get tax deductions. The “supporting adult” will have a significant yearly income, and unlike the student they are supporting, is paying taxes and can immediately benefit from the tax deduction.

Horner suggests that many students are hesitant to complete what they believe is a confusing tax claim process.

“From a philosophical point of view…the government wants you to be able to complete your own tax return. It’s not supposed to be so complicated that you can’t figure it out,” said Horner.

Three faculty receive medals from the Royal Society

Three University of Toronto faculty have been recognized with medals by the Royal Society of Canada for outstanding achievement in research and scholarship. Six additional faculty were elected members of the organization.

The Royal Society of Canada presents scholars with 12 medals and awards every year. Founded in 1882, the society is the oldest association of scientists and scholars in Canada. The society is dedicated to promoting education and the advancement of knowledge in the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.

Robert Bothwell of the Munk School of Global Affairs, Shahrzad Mojab of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Andrei Yudin of the Department of Chemistry received medals in their respective fields.

Robert Bothwell

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Professor Robert Bothwell was awarded the J.B. Tyrrell Historical Medal. A scholar of international history and Canadian political history, Bothwell received the medal specifically for his work on the history of Canada.

The RSC recognizes the work of scholars who integrate their teachings with their research, an attribute Bothwell claims helps him guide his work and shape his conclusions.

“There is no dichotomy between research and teaching — to me, they are part of a whole,” he said in an e-mail to The Varsity.

Bothwell jokes that he expected students to “strike matches on [him] to see if [he] was sufficiently statute-like,” after they found out about his medal.

Currently, Professor Bothwell is the Director of the International Relations program, and a published author of a dozen or so books including the Penguin History of Canada.

Shahrzad Mojab

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OISE Professor Shahrzad Mojab is the winner of the Award in Gender Studies. The award recognizes significant contributions by Canadian scholars in the humanities and social sciences to furthering understanding of issues concerning gender.

“I consider myself a scholar-activist,” Mojab told The Varsity in an interview. Her work is centered on issues concerning women, war, and learning. Feminism, anti-racism pedagogy, and adult education in comparative and global perspectives are also key components in her work.

The greatest hallmark of Mojab’s work lies in the innovative ways in which she disseminates her research projects. Her recent project Memories, Memoirs and the Arts featured female political prisoners from Iran relating their stories through different mediums of film, dance and story telling workshops

Mojab’s work has been cited extensively in the Canadian court system and in UN studies and reports pertaining to gender and equality.

She considers the award an honour, but she insists her colleagues and students deserve the recognition as much as she does: “I like to think about it as a contribution to a collective. My work is built upon the work of many of my other colleagues at the institute. It’s also the encouragement, support, and demand of my students who push the boundaries of my scholarship to be a better researcher and teacher.”

Andrei Yudin

Chemistry Professor Andrei Yudin is the winner of the Rutherford Memorial Medal in Chemistry that recognizes outstanding research in any branch of physics.

Yudin has developed versatile mixtures that allow rapid synthesis of complex biologically active molecules.

According to Yudin, his lab has produced a synthetic reaction that can convert proteins into rings, forming molecules with immunosuppressive properties that can be useful after organ transplantation. His method of making the molecules has been used in collaboration with other labs.

“We have a number of therapeutic targets in mind and at the moment we are concentrating on making molecules with antibacterial and anticancer properties on the basis of reactions my students and I developed,” said Yudin in an e-mail to The Varsity.

Yudin plans to celebrate this honor with a night of drinking with his lab group.

“It is a closely knit lab and we like to celebrate these things because there is just so much hard work that goes into advancing science.”

The awards and medals attached to each of these honours will be given out at an official awards ceremony at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa on November 27.

UTSC has new Dean of Student Affairs

UTSC has a new Dean of Student Affairs. Desmond Pouyat has filled the position following the summer retirement of former dean, Tom Nowers.

Pouyat joins UTSC at a time when he feels the campus is experiencing significant growth with the new instructional centre set to open next year, the coming Pan Am facility, and what he says is the university’s plan to grow the student body and internationalize the campus.

“UTSC is a diverse and rich community and [I have] an opportunity to be a part of that. As a person who grew up in Jamaica and a person of colour, to be here at this time is a fantastic opportunity,” said Pouyat.

Pouyat left Jamaica when he was 19, coming to Canada as a landed immigrant. He attended McMaster University for an undergraduate degree in political science and sociology and decided to stay.

Initially wanting to go into law, he chose a Masters of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University because law focused more on a winner and a loser than helping people accomplish things together. “It’s been great because [social work] allowed me to do many different things,” said Pouyat.

He proceeded to work in social work services at a psychiatric hospital at McMaster, became an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, and then moved to St. Joseph’s hospital in Chatham, to work in children’s mental health services.

Pouyat first moved into student-related services at McMaster two and a half years after Chatham. He became the Director of the Centre for Student Development and stayed on for seven years before moving to UTSC.

His interest in student services comes from the opportunity he sees in working with what he terms as some of the most fortunate people on the planet, those able to attend university. “It is a privilege to be here…with people who are going to be the next generation’s leaders impacting life decades to come. The chance to work with each incoming class is a huge opportunity.”

He is glad to work at UTSC because it allows him to expand the work he did at McMaster, and allows him to work closer to home — he commuted every day from East York. He is also happy to have come out successful after such a competitive hiring process.

“I want to build a relationship with student government…and work in partnership with the campus community. I want to [make] sure goals are set to…create a fantastic campus and student life experience.”

Pouyat hopes to create a transformative experience for students through his work as Dean. He wants them to enjoy their university life and feel supported, safe, comfortable, respected, and above all, successful. “I hope [students] won’t be the same person when [they] finish as when [they] started.”

Outside of work, Pouyat is very interested in sports. He looks forward to attending games and possibly participating in a few, such as cricket on the new pitch he said is being set up.

Nowers retired in June 2010 citing his desire to develop his interests, travel, and spend time with his family.

Still life — Michael Winter, The Death of Donna Whalen (Interview)

Cinéma-vérité for the page, Winter’s latest returns to the grisly, real-life murder that enthralled him as a young man

Still life — Michael Winter, The Death of Donna Whalen (Interview)

In 1993, a single mother was stabbed 31 times in her home in St. John’s, while her children slept just steps away, in their rooms. The brutal murder, as well as the botched police investigation and mistrial that followed, shook the city. Meanwhile, a young writer, fascinated by the story, pored over court transcripts, intending to turn them into a book in the style of Truman Capote. Then he put the book down.

In most cases, a novel should not need a foreword to justify its own creation. The work should speak for itself. Yet The Death of Donna Whalen isn’t like most books, and as the only slightly less young Michael Winter — now the author of six books, including The Big Why and The Architects Are Here — explains in his foreword, a book unlike other books requires its own construction. Donna Whalen certainly has its own innovative form. A collage cut entirely from the author’s stack of court documents, the novel is a seething portrait of class, violence, and human frailty. The Varsity sat down with Winter over chips and gravy to discuss documentary fiction and the problems with Truman Capote’s voice.


So, how’s the book been received?


Well, so far, it’s had a tremendously powerful reception in Newfoundland, which was… [laughs nervously]


Were you worried about that?


Yeah! That’s a big relief. And now we’ll just see if it has legs and if it has universal appeal. Can people read this anywhere and go, ‘Yes, that’s an interesting book. It’s a weird community, what a strange thing.’ But also at the same time, ‘This happens here, maybe,’ or ‘It doesn’t happen here, but I’m glad to have visited that place. And I feel like having a shower now after reading all this.’ [laughs]


How old were you when the murder happened?


I was 28. So in my thirties I had the transcripts and I was trying to write it. I wanted to write like Truman Capote, like, ‘Come to my city where this thing happened. This is my sense of my city and what’s going on’—like that kind of voice. And it was good, except what I was saying was: ‘Oh yeah, somebody was murdered here, and her family’s still alive and all that, but I want you to be entertained by my graphic description of what happened to her.’ And I just felt like, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to profit from her death.

The other thing too was, even though that story was good, it didn’t seem to be as good as the [transcript] material just on the page. Reading on the page, it was plugged in, it was so alive.


What was it that made you pick it up again, since you put it down after trying the Capote thing?

It was good, except what I was saying was ‘Somebody was murdered here, but I want you to be entertained by my graphic description of what happened to her.’ I don’t want to do that.


I read a book by Nancy Lemann, who’s a southern journalist. She wrote a book in the late ’80s called The Ritz of the Bayou, which was her covering a trial of the Governor of Louisiana—what was happening, what was being said—and it had a lot of her in it, but at the same time, the testimony of characters was coming up, and I don’t know Louisiana at all, but the characters, when they were talking, I could see them. She didn’t describe them, but I could visualize them. And I thought, ‘That’s a way into this material.’ I thought, ‘Why don’t I just use that? I’ll just use that—keep me out of it. All I’ll do is shape it and curate my way to a book, and say, “Reader, come, look what I’ve found. It’s over here. It’s not me. It’s here.” And that way, I’m not receiving praise. I’m just saying, ‘This is going on in every court in the land. These stories.’ And it’s kind of fascinating and gripping and unconventional in its form, and yet as satisfying, I hope, as a regular, conventional novel. That’s what I’m gunning for. And I think Southern writers and Newfoundland writers have a lot in common.


How so?


Our development economically is similar to the South, we have a deep tradition of oral story telling, and a good sense of humour, and being economically deprived. I think the rise of attention of Atlantic Canadian fiction, and Newfoundland in particular, is directly associated with the kind of attention we give Southern writers and writers from the Mississippi—that rural, Faulknerian kind of heritage is in Newfoundland as well. We’re in no way linked by history, but by geography and circumstance and [being] economic hinterland areas, we’ve developed in a literary way in a similar way.

The rule was I wouldn’t add any words.


You mention Faulkner in your foreword to the book.


Yeah, As I Lay Dying. Every chapter is a different character telling the story from their point of view. And again, hardly any context—‘Oh, I guess they’re bringing somebody to get well on a wagon, and somebody has cement on their broken leg.’ The reader has to fill in the gaps in what’s going on. The same with the Spoon River Anthology, the Edgar Lee Masters poems: it’s this testimony of characters from a village of horrible things that have gone on. It’s like, ‘I don’t know where this town is, or who these people are, but, my god, it’s magnetic! I want to keep reading.’ And I mention the D.H. Lawrence quote: ‘A story that’s not a copy of other books needs its own construction.’ And that applied to this form in the book, too.


So how did it work putting it together, then? If not a word is your own.


Yeah, that was the rule: I wouldn’t add any words. So as I went through my five-foot stack of transcripts, I would highlight things that I found interesting—how somebody said something. In a court trial, before a trial has a jury, all the evidence is presented in front of the judge and the crown prosecutor and the defence attorney. They interview all the witnesses. So they go through this dry run of the court to see what people have to say. If somebody says, ‘Oh, then I heard her stabbed,’ and that’s all they say in the voir dire and then on trial says, ‘And then she was stabbed, and I heard her say—’ So there’s these repetitions, and yet they’re different. And so I would decide, well, I’m not going to have both—that would be boring. So I have the best of what this witness says, and I might take half of a sentence here and a third of it here and put it together, so it’s not exactly what she said, but she did say both things. I haven’t added a word, but contorted it in the hopes of making a slimmer novel that’s readable.



You’ve described your novel as a ‘documentary fiction.’ What do you mean by that?


This is my sixth book, and when I started writing, I started writing short stories. I’m not very imaginative in the end. I’m interested in how people eat chips, let’s say, how and can I describe that in an interesting way. So I’m like a painter trying to paint a still life. I’m not imagining the fruit—the fruit is in front of me. And of course a painting of a bowl of fruit is interesting to only me and my mother—nobody else cares—so I have to figure out how do I make this bowl of fruit interesting to you? How will she go, ‘Wow, that’s a great bowl of fruit!’ So I’ve learned, in using autobiographical material, to cultivate it in a way that a stranger will like it. I’ve gotten that cold distance from the material to know what someone who doesn’t know anything about my life will still like this story, and yet it’s autobiographical in its roots.

I’m like a painter trying to paint a still life. I have to figure out how do I make this bowl of fruit interesting to you?

So I’ve done that in various forms for a number of books. This time I thought, ‘Well, can I apply that same technique to found material?’ Instead of the real world—I didn’t witness the murder, what happened that night, I just have these affidavits from people, these testimonies—can I apply this kind of interest to that material and present it to you. So in that way, it’s like a documentary, it’s found footage, it’s cinema-vérité, and I’m cutting a film out of this raw footage that’s been presented to me. And I didn’t shoot it. So in that way, it’s a documentary, and yet, as my publisher said when she read the first draft, she said, ‘My God, I can’t believe you didn’t write this. This sounds just like the way you write.’ Which I had not thought of at all. I was reading it, and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, she’s right.’ What I’d done was, out of 3 million words, I found 80,000 that sound like me. And if you went in there and wrote your book, you’d find a completely different book than mine, and it would sound like you. It’s both a fiction and it’s based on documents, and I’ve put the two together.

Out of 3 million words, I found 80,000 that sound like me. And if you went in there and wrote your book, you’d find a completely different book than mine.


The perspective in the novel has a lot of the hallmarks of an omniscient narrator, in that it’s in the third person and we get these intimate details of these people’s lives, but that perspective turns out to be untrustworthy. We might be used to the idea of an untrustworthy narrator, but not from this point of view. What was the significance of changing the testimonies into the third person?


The third person came about because of the failure of the first person. I tried it in first person, from all the different voices, because that was initially what gripped me, this voice talking to me: ‘I was here, I did this, I did that.’ But with the novel, the monotony of all these voices saying, ‘I, I, I’—it just felt like a lot of shouting. It took a while to think, ‘Maybe I could have some of it in third person,’ and I just started doing it, and yet I kept some of the characters’ word choices. Like for some of the characters, for the past tense of sit they don’t say sat, they say sot. ‘I sot in the chair.’ I thought, well, how do I spell it, for one thing. And does sot make the reader feel like, ‘Oh, I’m with an Okie who doesn’t know how to articulate himself.’ Or is there some kind of grammatical cohesiveness in that sot that will actually give that character integrity.

I think you’ve nailed something when you mention the omniscient voice, because the third person does present that, but then you get the colour of the voice, the person who says sot, and you think, that’s not the writer—the proofreader would have caught that—that must be the person. Sometimes when sports figures are interviewed, the interviewer will say, so, ‘What does Wayne Gretzky think about this?’ And Wayne Gretzky will say, ‘Wayne Gretzky thinks—’ He’ll start talking about himself in the third person! And in a way, that third person talking about oneself created a kind of a distance to the scene and the events, and yet was intimate with its colour and diction. I really liked that blend of the two together, and it felt, too, that I avoided the monotony of a variety of I’s speaking in monologues. There was a whole bunch that I changed to being grammatically correct, because it did create too much of an ‘I’m a bumpkin’ kind of feel, ‘I’m an idiot, uneducated,’ and the trouble with that was, it’s like the reader was thinking, ‘Oh, is the writer making fun of that person now?’ So it was a constant issue.


Did you merge real-life people into a single character at all? I would have thought there would have been more characters to a trial.


Oh yeah, there’s hundreds of characters in a court trial for murder. My first novel, This All Happened, which was purportedly a year in the life of what happens in a city based on one character, in the first draft of that, there were 300 characters. I quickly realized nobody’s going to remember all these characters. So is there a way of merging characters? Writing that novel made me learn how to do that. It’s always very fascinating when your friend who’s the car mechanic is also the aunt who went to Peru and got some marble and made a statue. It’s like, oh yeah, the car mechanic who went to Peru, that’s kind of interesting, and it’s not a real person anymore, and yet I can imagine them, I can believe them. So I did that with these characters too. Like, how many neighbours have crucial information, and that little piece of information that one neighbour has, can I give it to that other woman, and get rid of them, so I don’t have to have them all? I did that all throughout. So again: didn’t make up a word, and yet I’m distorting the truth of the trial. Some people in Newfoundland wanted me to talk about the original trial, but it would be unfair for me to weigh in on what really happened, because I’ve distorted it so much. So I can talk about the fiction, but I can’t talk about the real case.


If you’ve made the still life interesting enough, in the end, it’s not about the bowl of fruit.


Right! [laughs] Those fruit are all eaten. They’re in the compost heap. I mean I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.


No? Not looking for more trial cases?


On the other hand, though, I’m surprised it hasn’t been done more often. Especially in this day and age of reality TV and everybody wanting the truth of things, why don’t court transcripts get abridged every day and published?


Maybe you’ve hit on something. We’re used to creative non-fiction. This is almost the opposite of that.


That’s right. And that was the last thing I wanted to write was a creative non-fiction book. I didn’t want to write that.


But you’ve done historical fiction before [The Big Why].

This is not a Canadian novel with a Canadian title with that whimsical thing going on. There’s nothing whimsical about this story. There’s no veneer.


Yes, but even that, I couldn’t contain myself. Like, when I wrote the historical novel, I asked a friend who had written a couple, ‘What’s the definition of a historical novel,’ and he said, ‘That’s easy. It’s where the action of the story takes place prior to the author’s birth.’ So before I was born, that’s a historical novel. With that historical novel, my character, who was a real character, Rockwell Kent, died in 1971, and I was born in 1965. So if he wrote the story as a really old man, I’m alive. So it’s not a historical novel. He’s just writing about the past, and he’s an old guy and he didn’t live in Newfoundland very long. So it’s a long time ago in a place he doesn’t really know very well, so if he gets things confused, so he doesn’t say the right mast was with the sail on it or how oil lamps were actually lit. All these things that were boring me to death to research, and I’m totally not interested in that kind of material.


The research can kill the work.


Oh my God, yeah. So if he had just mentioned the word helicopter—just blurts it out, because they had helicopters in 1971—then that’s a kind of interesting story. I’ll read that story, and I’ll write that story. So that was my way around the confines of writing historical fiction, which seemed to me to be death to write that kind of book. I’m not that kind of meticulous researcher of the past. Nor am I interested in reading that kind of stuff.



Sometimes authors don’t have total control over the title of their book. Was this your title?


This was my title. And I know it’s a meat and potatoes title. It’s just plainly there: The Death of Donna Whalen. But, you know, there’s been The Death of Ivan Ilyich, there’s been some classic books with that kind of frame. I had some earlier titles that were more evocative, or metaphoric in a number of ways. But they all had the trouble in the end of, for me, of feeling—this is not a traditional novel with a Canadian title with that kind of whimsical thing going on. There’s nothing whimsical about this story, there’s nothing artistic on the surface of the story. I mean, I know all the artifices that went through creating it, but there’s no veneer. This is just it. And I wanted a title that was just it, with no kind of colour. You know like with a movie like Saving Private Ryan, you sit down to watch Steven Spielberg and there’s like four scrolling frames of saying, ‘By the entertainment people, and the production company of so-and-so’? There’s always this kind of veneer of ‘Oh, it’s not real, even though we’ve got this hand-held cam down on the beaches. It’s been prepared for me by this entertainment conglomerate. And don’t forget it, Viewer.’ Well, I want the reader to forget it. I want the reader to forget that there was a publisher, and a writer, and all this stuff. I just want them to go right into this world. And it’s near impossible to do, to forget those layers within layers. It is an entertainment in the end, but I’m trying to get to some other kind of feeling out of the reader than what we normally get from reading a book of fiction.

I want the reader to forget there was a publisher and a writer. It’s near impossible to do, but I’m trying to get some other kind of feeling than what we normally get from a book of fiction.


But it’s not just a death, it’s a murder, a very brutal murder at that, and also, the focus on Donna: is the story really even about Donna? What would you say the story is about?


Yes, I mean, in some of those titles [included] Sheldon Troke’s name because it’s really a lot about him, and he’s the one on trial. The thing is, Sheldon Troke is a piece of work, he’s a hard case, he’s not a very good person. But I don’t think he murdered anybody. And yet he had the downtown of St. John’s terrified of him. When the cops had him arrested, he was in the jail, he was calling the neighbours. He called this one guy, and he said, you know, ‘If you heard anything in the night when Donna Whalen was murdered, tell the cops. Tell ’em everything you know.’ And [the neighbour] says, ‘Yup. I’ll do it, Sheldon. No trouble.’ He puts down the phone, and there’s a wiretap of [the neighbour] saying to his wife, ‘Sheldon Troke just called, and he scared the living daylights out of me. He threatened me pretty much, saying, like, if I tell the cops anything, he’s going to come and get me—I mean, he didn’t say that directly, but I can read through his words. He knows his phone is tapped, and he’s telling me to shut up.’ So Sheldon Troke’s own behaviour was his own downfall. He had so scared everybody to death of him that they couldn’t help him, even when he cried out for help, because everybody thought he’d done it. And they were all terrified of him. So instead of saying to the police, ‘Actually, I did hear something that night,’ they said, ‘Nope. Didn’t hear a thing. Nope, nothing here, boy. Don’t know what happened.’ They could have helped him, but they were scared of him, and they thought he’d done it. So that kind of quandary of, it’s kind of Shakespearean in a way: your own bad behaviour causes the greater downfall in one’s own being. So that was a big thing in the book. But then the whole police informant, Leander Dollymont and this whole ‘I had a sexual relationship with Sheldon Troke in prison,’ that whole lie he told. It’s so convincing. All of that. Just people telling big stories about what really happened, and yet they’re not telling the truth at all, but convincingly. That really did occur. There being no narrative voice, too, like I’m telling you now, to guide you through this—all I have through this transcript are voices, because there’s nobody judging through the whole thing.


There’s no one to say, ‘Dear Reader.’


Yeah. There’s no one to say, ‘See how he’s conflicted his testimony from a hundred pages behind?’ It’s ‘But he said—and now he’s saying—oh yeah.’ That kind of thing of piecing it together, I found it really wild to be working on that. 

Scrapping the long gun registry

Although the long gun registry survived by only two votes, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed to continue the push to have the registry scrapped. All Canadians should also advocate for the scrapping of this expensive and unnecessary program.

The long gun registry has been a contentious issue in Canada ever since it was enacted 15 years ago. The registry is a large list of “long guns”, which include rifles, shotguns, and other non-automatic firearms larger than a handgun. Numerous sportsmen’s associations as well as the far-right Christian Heritage Party of Canada have been especially vocal. Harper claimed in Thunder Bay two weeks ago claimed that “opposition to [the registry] has not diminished, it has only increased.”

The basic worth of the long gun registry should be evaluated based on whether or not it reduces crime. Overall, the gun registry has been a non-factor in deterring violent crime and stigmatizes perfectly legitimate portions of society, such as hunters and rural Canadians. Additionally, it proves to be a divide between rural and urban Canadians. Interestingly, in the United States, where gun laws are less restrictive, relaxing concealed weapon carrying laws actually reduced murder rates by 8.5 per cent, according to the US Bureau of Statistics. These statistics run contrary to popular wisdom that tighter gun laws reduce crime.

Only one third of violent crimes are committed with long guns. (It is worth mentioning that handguns have been subject to a registry since 1934). The murder rate has lowered marginally in these years, and is more likely the result of an aging population rather than the registry. Moreover, virtually all these crimes were committed with unregistered firearms. The registry has not even been useful in the criminal investigation over the guns. This is due to the vast majority of registered firearms which belong to hunters, and nearly every murder in Canada is committed with an unregulated arm, often smuggled in from the United States. It is simple to smuggle guns from the United States and other countries.

There roughly 7.5 million registered firearms in Canada, most of which can be foun in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and British Columbia. The long gun registry has forced many Canadians to give up long guns, which are cherished family heirlooms. A story in the Globe and Mail it from 2003 reported one Canadian family was forced to give up their Brown Bess musket, the standard small arm of the British Empire for a century, which dated from the War of 1812.

An argument that is often put forward for the registry is that gun owners must be “accountable” for their ownership. So, mandatory safety courses are not enough? Often, gun ownership runs in families, so is being taught to respect firearms from a young age not enough? The gun registry is a waste of Canadian taxpayers money which serves an esoteric purpose, and has questionable results.

Canada is a newly urbanized society. Prior to the 1960s, more than 70 per cent of Canadians lived on farms. Rifles, used for hunting small game to eke out a living in the rugged terrain of 19th and 20th century Canada, were a part of daily life. As well, citizen militia formed a significant part of Canada’s military history. Canadians from the frontier fought alongside British regulars defending Montreal and Queenston Heights against foreign invaders and additionally, one of our longest lasting regiments, The Lord Strathcona Horse, was a citizen militia, and remains so to this day. Guns and rifles are a part of Canada’s frontier history.

Ironically, the only party leader not to have answered a question as to whether he had had ever fired a gun was Stephen Harper. Every leader, including Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe, admitted to at one time firing a gun. Proper gun ownership is a widespread and legitimate hobby. It is simply wrong to punish sportsmen on the grounds that there are occasional abuses. It is misuse of firearms, and not their mere existence, that leads to crime. The gun registry is expensive, and has not achieved its goals, as it cost over 2 billion initially and varies between 80 and 100 million annually to be maintained. In addition, it has not changed gun crime but merely changed the nature of it. It is entirely unnecessary and must be revoked.