U of T student interns for Nelson Mandela

This summer, Victoria Hill went to Johannesburg as an intern for the Centre of Memory Project. Part of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the project is committed to documenting, publicizing, and contributing to ongoing struggles for justice.

Hill, in the second year of a Master’s in information studies, worked on archiving materials, including a few thousand papers on Mandela’s clan’s role as mediator of the Burundi peace process.

“I’ve learned that archivists cannot shy away from politics and power struggles,” she told the Bulletin. Hill is working on establishing First Nations community-based records management and archives programs in Canada.

Source: The Bulletin

Blues refuse to be badgered

In a 3-2 loss to the Brock Badgers on Sept. 15, the Varsity Blues men’s baseball team proved to be inconsistent. The first run scored by the Badgers was caused in part by an error by the Blues’ third baseman in the second inning. This run was costly, and eventually proved to be the difference in the game.

“We made a good effort, but unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the score today,” said Blues starting pitcher Tyler Wilson.

Wilson looked strong, and would have pitched the whole game had other pitchers not needed the work. He showed character on the mound, steadily improving as the game progressed. “I felt more comfortable as the game went on,” said Wilson. “I started feeling better on the mound and my pitches improved as we got deeper in the game.”

On the offensive side the Blues looked overmatched by the Badgers pitching, not scoring a run until the seventh inning, despite enjoying a few good opportunities along with home-field advantage. Whether they were tired or overwhelmed, the Blues lacked intensity through the first five and a half innings. Only after the two-run outburst in the fifth by the Badgers did the Blues seem to come alive at the plate. Suddenly feeling a sense of urgency, team veterans held successive player meetings in the dugout during which they yelled “wake up!” at each other in an attempt to instill competitive spirit into the team. Although these pep talks led to Blues’ runs in the seventh and ninth innings, they weren’t enough to defeat the Badgers.

The lack of intensity was apparent not only in the players, but in the coaching staff. Down 3-1 with one out in the bottom of the seventh, Blues shortstop David Fallico laced a hit past the Badgers third baseman and into the outfield for a single. Fallico, who hasn’t been caught stealing this season, led the team with ten stolen bases (which was six more than the rest of the team combined). Shockingly, he wasn’t given the green light by the third base coach to steal second, and so remained planted on first. Having a runner on second base with one out would have eliminated the possibility of an inning-ending double play and a hit to the gap in the outfield would have easily scored the speedy Fallico. Plus, having a runner in scoring position capable of either stealing third or scoring on a single adds a potential distraction for the opposing pitcher. Whether the lack of a steal was a case of oversight or indifference, it has to call into question the drive of the coaching staff.

However, there are several reasons for fans to remain optimistic about the 2009 Blues squad. In a post-game interview, Wilson spoke of not having enough starting rotation spots to house all the pitching talent on the team. Although currently they are in the lower half of the standings, when asked about his team’s chances of making a playoff run, Wilson was enthusiastic and optimistic. On Saturday the Blues built on some of their potential by defeating the Laurier Golden Hawks 9-7 at home in Scarborough.

The Blues are a mix of young and old players in need of some support. Defensively, they were fairly shaky and inexperienced at certain positions. The coaching staff needs to train players to effectively approach each at-bat, as the hitters were often outclassed and did not recognize the umpire was calling all outside pitches as strikes. Finally, this Blues team needs support from the fans. Taking a trip out to the Scarborough campus is a majestic experience as the field is truly a diamond in the rough. The play on the field will soon catch up to the beauty of the surroundings. This team may go on a hot streak, and with their deep pitching staff, and potential for timely hitting, they will certainly catch on with the fans.

Ryerson eyes Maple Leaf Gardens as new athletic centre

In a spring 2009 referendum, Ryerson University students voted in favour of coughing up an extra $126 per year in athletic fees for new facilities. Little did they know the new digs might be the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens.

“We are now actively engaged in searching for an appropriate site and are looking at a number of options, including discussions with Loblaw Companies Limited regarding Maple Leaf Gardens,” reads a statement issued by Ryerson last Wednesday.

Loblaw confirmed the same day that the two are in discussions over sharing the use of the historic arena. Although the supermarket giant purchased the building in 2004 with plans to convert it into a grocery store, the joint venture may preserve the site’s legacy as a hockey facility.

“Not only would Maple Leaf Gardens help varsity athletes, but also the student body,” said Graham Wise, head coach of the men’s hockey team at Ryerson, to the student paper the Eyeopener. The Ryerson Athletic Centre is without a proper rink. The Ryerson Rams practice at George Bell Arena near St. Clair and Keele, which some say is too far for students who want to catch a game.

Sources: Toronto Star, The Eyeopener

NDP cooperates with Conservatives, demonstrating the pitfalls of parliamentary democracy in Canada

I began last week’s column by stating unequivocally that there would be an election this fall. Though Canada’s political tides have shifted away from an election since I made this prediction, a fall vote remains a distinct possibility. Everyone would be well advised to keep their lawn signs handy and their campaign pins polished.

However, such an election will likely result in more of the status quo in our parliamentary democracy. Parties will only co-operate in order to maximize their political power, and true co-operation and representation will be left at the House of Commons door. One need only look at last week’s events to see why.

The major turn of events came when NDP leader Jack Layton hinted that his party might support the government in a crucial confidence vote. This, only days after Harper announced he would not engage in “backroom deals” with “socialists” and “separatists,” and after attacking Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s supposed agenda to co-operate with such social democrat scum. But to keep his government alive, the Prime Minister found himself suddenly making concessions on Employment Insurance in order to shore up NDP support.

The bizarre circumstance of a deeply conservative Prime Minister pinning the survival of his government on the support of a party that has been his strongest critic, with an Employment Insurance bill the very nature of which contradicts the ideology he has pledged to uphold, has many pundits’ heads spinning. Similarly, there has been an angry reaction on the left from those who view Layton’s support for the Harper government as a betrayal of progressive principles. It is as yet unclear what the long-term implications of this maneuvering will be for either party.

Of the two party leaders, Harper’s position is perhaps the more surprising. His party is leading in the polls and its chief rival, the Liberal Party, is under attack from all sides for its hawkish stance.

The NDP, however, were presented with a more difficult set of conditions. Had they held to their conventional position of no support for the Harper Government, they too would have been accused of being uncooperative and opportunistic, and would have been responsible for denying badly needed benefits to tens of thousands of unemployed workers—many of whom are their constituents. Yet the left’s visceral hatred of the current government, nurtured by two and a half years of anti-Conservative rhetoric from the NDP, has put Layton between a rock and a hard place.

The Liberals have made it clear they intend to fast-track the EI bill, meaning that a non-confidence vote could still topple the government this fall. It’s difficult to see how the NDP will maintain this most precarious of positions for long when the Liberals have declared, “there’s no turning back.”

Taking a step back from the nightmarish haste of recent events, last week not only exemplifies the dysfunctional nature of our current parliament, but the need for a complete overhaul of the parliamentary conventions and procedures that led us to this juncture in the first place. When Harper accused Ignatieff of harbouring a “hidden agenda” to form a coalition with the NDP supported by the Bloc, he again revealed his disdain for parliamentary democracy, which, in a country as multi-faceted as Canada, must function on the basis of co-operation between parties. Michael Ignatieff was quick to take the bait: no coalitions — we’re going it alone.

Under the current circumstances, it is hard to imagine any party securing a majority. And if Canadians do return to the polls this fall, as is likely, they may find themselves with the same formula that produced last week’s stalemate: a group of regional parties unwilling to work together, no substantive discussion or policy, and a government which effectively represents less than one quarter of the electorate.

TTFN, TIFF

THE BAD LIEUTENANT—PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS – VVVVV

Very loosely inspired by Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (2002), this Werner Herzog film is exactly as entertaining and batshit crazy as you’d expect a Herzog version of Bad Lieutenant to be. Excising the Catholic overtones from the Ferrera film, Herzog concentrates instead on the Lieutenant’s (Nicolas Cage) out-of-control drug and gambling addictions, and his zealous descent into corruption to support. You ain’t never seen anyone play a zealous drug addict until you’ve seen a twitchy, spastic Nicolas Cage play a zealous drug addict.

Who but Herzog would be ballsy enough to linger for a full minute on a hallucination of iguanas in extreme close-up? Who else would have characters deliver lines like “Do fish dream?” and “Shoot him again—his soul is still dancing!” Who else would let Cage deliver such a crazed performance that it makes Klaus Kinski look like Mister Rogers? Inspired by the film noir genre, Herzog takes the elements of a classic crime film and intentionally ramps them up to ridiculous extremes, setting them in a post-Katrina New Orleans that is pungent with swampy, sleazy atmosphere. At 121 minutes it could use some trimming, but The Bad Lieutenant is more fun than a desk full of iguanas.

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY – VVVVV

Early in Michael Moore’s latest left-wing polemic, he and his cameraman once again shuffle up to General Motors headquarters, and Moore wearily explains to the guard, “Come on, I have not been let into this building in 20 years!” (Equally weary, the guard rolls his eyes and says into his walkie-talkie, “It’s Michael Moore here to see the chairman.”) This is a cute throwaway moment, and it contributes to the summation feeling of Moore’s new film. All the familiar elements are here—ironic stock footage, Bush-bashing, true-life horror stories, sardonic narration—at the service of a topic at the core of most of Moore’s earlier work: the wealthy class’s manipulation of capitalism for greedy purposes, and their callous indifference to the working and middle classes.

The topic may be broad, but Moore launches his most coherent, focused, and devastating attack since Roger & Me, miraculously turning the already very well documented stock market crash into a compulsively watchable story. It is a delight to be reminded of how powerful a filmmaker Moore can be, so firmly is he in control of his music, images, pacing, and tone. “I can’t really do this anymore,” he admits after his climactic stunt, and he has said in interviews that this could be his last documentary. Too bad, because when hearing Moore propose Roosevelt’s failed Bill of Rights (which would incorporate most of what Moore has lobbied for) as an alternative to unchecked capitalism, I had a startling realization: this guy might be on to something.

CREATION – VVV

The text that opens Creation claims that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was the “biggest idea in the history of thought.” But this slow, stuffy film is not about Darwin’s theory (although we certainly hear the phrase “millions of variations” more than once during a montage) or the effect it had on society (although such repercussions are hinted at in several long, awkward, monologues). Instead, it concerns Darwin’s own gradual loss of faith, triggered by the death of his daughter, and the moral battle he had within himself upon writing his theory. (Basically, it’s Darwin Begins).

As played by Paul Bettany, Darwin is not a particularly dynamic screen character, and his strained relationship with his religious wife (Jennifer Connelly) is, within the context of a Hollywood biopic, fairly flat and predictable. Certainly loss of faith can be an interesting topic, but I can’t help feeling director Jon Amiel has captured the least interesting part of Darwin’s story.

GEORGE A. ROMERO’S SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD – V

It’s no fun watching a great filmmaker lose his mojo. The best that can be said for George A. Romero’s sixth zombie film is that it’s more entertainingly awful than Diary of the Dead, but this is strictly direct-to-video stuff. Picking up on some of the minor characters from that film, Survival follows a group of soldiers trying to make their way to safety during the zombie apocalypse (Or, in corny Romero-speak, “It was an us vs. them world. All we were lookin’ for was a place where there was no them.”) They meet up with O’Flynn, a mercenary who takes them to the island where he has feuded for decades with the dastardly Seamus Muldoon.

Naming his Irish characters “O’Flynn” and “Seamus Muldoon” would suggest that Romero is out of touch, but nothing prepared me for how this once gritty and intense filmmaker could make a film so free of atmosphere and absent of his usual social commentary (unless the laughable final shot indicates a swipe at partisan politics, and oh god, I hope not). With dialogue, acting, and even zombie carnage lame across the board, somebody needs to finally shoot this franchise in the head.

THE INVENTION OF LYING – VVV

Ricky Gervais is a funny-looking man, and in The Invention of Lying, his first film as co-director, co-writer, and star, the denizens of an alternate universe where lying has never been conceived are relentless in pointing this out. In the most painful date in movie history since Taxi Driver, Jennifer Garner cheerfully tells him that he is “tubby and with a snub nose” (among other insults) and at one point excuses herself to go masturbate. Gervais is an expert on mining laughs from insincerity and human nature, so I laughed loud and often during The Invention of Lying.

Why, then, do I feel a tinge of disappointment? By creating The Office and Extras, Gervais has set himself an impossible standard, but I still hoped he would have handled the sentimental passages with more nuance, and not saddle himself with such a formulaic plot or a love story with so little chemistry. The film has many of the biggest laughs of the year, and times when the one-joke nature gets tedious. While high-concept studio comedies are where he is best suited, even Ricky Gervais at 60 per cent means a lot of laughs.

LIFE DURING WARTIME – VVVv

Todd Solondz revisits characters from 1998’s Happiness with this similarly disturbing sequel about the difficulty and sometimes impossibility of forgiveness. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is separated from her phone sex–addicted husband and haunted by the ghost of Andy (Paul Reubens!). Meanwhile, Joy’s sister Trish (Allison Janney) tries to deal with her son finding out his father Bill is a convicted pedophile, when Bill (Ciaran Hinds) has just been released from jail. If the film lacks the explosive force of Happiness, maybe it’s because we’ve been down this territory with Solondz before, and really, how can you top Dylan Baker masturbating to a teen idol magazine?

The film contains some of Solondz’s most powerful scenes, like the one between Bill and his estranged son, or between Bill and a lonely woman played by Charlotte Rampling—moments so painful and emotional that they make Solondz’s gallows humour feel more cruel and condescending than usual. In *Life During Wartime
* we watch seemingly normal characters deal with overwhelming, almost ludicrous tragedy and transgression, and perhaps it’s the conflict between ludicrous and tragic that makes this film so troubling and fascinating.

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS – VVv

In the film destined to be remembered as TIFF 2009’s other George Clooney movie, the square-jawed former Batman plays Lyn Cassady, an ex-officer of a top-secret military operation in which soldiers used supernatural powers, or, as they called it with amusing egotism, they were Jedi using the force. The film, which follows Cassady’s misadventures with a journalist (Ewan McGregor) through a terror-stricken Middle East, possesses a Coen-esque fondness for absurdity with a straight face, but there’s something off-putting about the tone of this movie.

Director Grant Heslov seems a little too sure that he’s made a clever, quirky comedy, and there is an air of self-satisfaction to the film that’s alienating. There are enough laughs in the premise to sustain the first half, but the central joke wares pretty thin, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about any of the characters. Oh, and if I see one more deadly scene where serious characters accidentally get high, I’m swearing off “quirky” comedies.

A SERIOUS MAN – VVVVV

Most modern movies taking place in ’50s suburbia depict their setting as oppressive, but few suburbs are more oppressive than the one in A Serious Man. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor seeking tenure who suffers from two selfish kids and a wife who has announced her intention to leave him for another man. The Coens are sometimes guilty of being condescending to their characters, but here there is only one character, surrounded by selfish non-people who act as part of the fabric of Larry’s punishing existence. This is the Coens’ funniest movie to date (yes, even funnier than Lebowski), so rich and subtle in its observational humour and background gags that it recalls Jacques Tati. It’s also one of their darkest: I first thought this was an atheistic movie, but with its dark Jewish sensibility, this movie’s version of God is very real, and very, very uncaring.

TRASH HUMPERS – VVv

If you thought Gummo was too mainstream you’ll love Harmony Korine’s latest and least compromising work, closer in spirit to a nasty piece of installation art than a movie. Filmed on a video camera and edited on a VCR (complete with tracking problems, sloppy cuts and “Play” and “Stop” graphics), this grainy and creepy film chronicles nothing more than the random antisocial behaviour of a group of freakish people, including, yes, the vigorous humping of trash cans, among other, even more twisted activities. Early reports that this is a musical are technically correct. Our heroes do indeed periodically sing and dance, but you won’t leave humming any of the tunes.

Korine’s grungy, working-class landscapes are always striking, but I fear Korine is guilty of making little more than a freak show that festival-going intellectuals can feel safe at, obvious social commentary be damned. But I’ll give Korine this: as angry his film made me, it has definitely lingered in my memory.

THE WHITE RIBBON – VVVV

Michael Haneke is one of the chilliest filmmakers around, and The White Ribbon might be his chilliest movie. After the startling, graphic evil depicted in his earlier films, this slow, black and white mood piece is even more austere than usual, but similarly unnerving. Set in a small German village on the eve of the First World War, fear and distrust strike the populace when an unexplained series of violent incidents begins. In Haneke’s dark vision, nobody comes off looking good: not the sexually abusive Baron, nor the corrupt Pastor, nor the strict and uncaring teacher, nor even the children. I don’t think this is quite top-drawer Haneke. I suppose I held it at arm’s length, admiring its craft but not getting sucked in as mercilessly as Cache, Funny Games, and The Piano Teacher. Still, this is a painful and powerful film, with Haneke’s gorgeous compositions contrasted harshly to his brittle, cruel characters. This village is as rigorously oppressive as that of A Serious Man, and Haneke’s unmistakable inference is that the village’s climate of fear, unfounded hatred, and deep distrust for those who do not conform foreshadows the rise of the Nazis.

Get Active!

Around the world, students are responding to what journalists often refer to as “the biggest challenge facing humanity.” It’s the worldwide effort to transition to a more sustainable society, and mitigate the conditions that will cause catastrophic climate change and the Earth’s sixth great mass extinction (the only one caused by our species).

This week is Earth Cycle at U of T, a week organized to create awareness and get students involved. The environment is at the top of many people’s minds.

UTSU, OPIRG, GSU, and UTERN, among others, are all student groups that address climate change. But they often face difficult internal problems and lack cooperation between them. These groups—all of which receive a student levy—could be far more active on these fronts, and it’s reasonable to predict they will be.

However, the world has very little time to wait. Climate scientists have provided peer-reviewed evidence that anthropogenic climate change is happening very quickly, and that we don’t have a lot of time to make the necessary big changes. “Baby steps” and slow transitions are not adequate. We need to work together, and quickly.

The necessity of creating more renewable energy infrastructure—which the province’s Energy minister has just begun to do—is therefore urgent. So is halting the tar sands expansion and persuading the Harper government to stop obstructing international climate negotiations. In the absence of responsible leadership from government and corporate sectors in Canada, students must fill the gap.

Already, students are taking on many initiatives. Some are working to make the campus more energy efficient by urging President Naylor to sign the Presidents’ Climate Initiative. Two engineering students went to their department head and got green architecture and design courses introduced into the course calendar. Others regularly organize climate and water justice lectures and films. And thousands are part of Powershift, a worldwide student movement for action on climate change.

A few students at U of T do a lot of good work, but many more could be involved on a downtown campus of 40,000, particularly when we are in the midst of that critical period of history when it is still possible to prevent catastrophe. As geography professor Danny Harvey notes, “much has been lost but there is still much that can be saved.”

In other parts of the world, such as Germany and Norway, student groups are doing incredible work, but Canada sees too many young people unthinkingly subscribe to the norms of a society which operates at the expense of future generations and other species. I wonder “why not here?”

Part of the answer lies in how a production-oriented society influences our decision-making. During the Governing Council student elections, a Varsity reporter noted that typical applicants are either “ambitious resume-padders or fiery reform advocates” (Jan. 15, 2009). This turn of phrase neatly describes the twin motivations of many students who get involved in environmental issues at U of T. One could also phrase this as the distinction between those who assume responsibility but fail to carry it out, and those who work very hard to bring about change. As with most human endeavours, it is impossible to neatly classify people into one group or the other. We each have a bit of both in us.

Resume-padding and careerism is endemic to academia, and the environmental concern is no exception. Yet there is also something in the human spirit that can aspire to hope for more and do more. Concern for the other, whether human or non-human, is at the heart of environmentalism. It persuades the engineering student to study “green design” and to forgo the higher paying job with Exxon Mobil. It leads the university administrator to form a greening committee in his or her department or building—and there are many such committees at U of T. It leads a professor to design an interdisciplinary course incorporating environmental awareness.

Environmental concern can compel anyone in the university community to eschew elitism and individualism and embrace community-building around common ideals. But this is not merely idealistic; in the era of climate change and finite resource depletion, it is also a practical necessity.

Paul York is a graduate student and founder of Students Against Climate Change.

Ex Appeal

In a short film from 1947 called Johnny at the Fair, a five-year-old boy and his family spend an exciting afternoon at the Canadian National Exhibition. Bored while his parents peruse the art exhibits, little Johnny sneaks away and embarks on a wondrous adventure, touring the midway, hobnobbing with celebrities (Joe Louis, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Olsen and Johnson), and even visiting an exhibit called “Chemical Wonderland,” where a smiling Ex employee throws him a bouncy ball of Plutonium. Oh, 1947…

I was much like Johnny when I was his age. During my first few years at the Ex, my parents would always make me watch the Second World War veterans’ parade—an unbelievably boring spectacle if you’re five. While my grandpa waved at us in the audience, I anxiously eyed the midway, shaking like a junkie going through withdrawal.

What I love about Johnny at the Fair is its wide-eyed innocence: like my own five-year-old self, Johnny is able to take the Ex purely at face value. For me, the Ex began to lose a lot of its luster when I became a teenager. Why, I asked, would I waste my time on The Zipper or The Haunted House when I could get a better rush on the Drop Zone at Wonderland? Why would I want to wander through a shopping centre with a bunch of skinny men in crew cuts selling mops and Jacuzzis when I could just go to the mall? And oh dear god, what sort of social suicide would I face if one of my friends saw me with my parents at the Superdogs?

Granted, Johnny had the advantage of living in a time when the Ex was a decidedly greater cultural force than it is now. Whenever I go to the Ex, I wander through the always-unchanged “Hall of Memories” (I love seeing that same picture of the Three Stooges year after year) and suspect that I’m witnessing a wistful yearning for better times rather than a pleasant walk down memory lane. Indeed, it sometimes feels like the Ex is virtually unchanged since Johnny visited: a decaying time warp from an era when a trampoline act was exciting and cultural exploration consisted of eating Chinese Chicken Balls at the Food Building.

But this year is different. This year, Bill Clinton is coming to deliver a speech, and curiosity has compelled me to buy a ticket. In the years since the end of his mediocre presidency, Clinton has painstakingly transformed himself into a beloved elder statesman, and one of the most expensive and sought-after public speakers in the world. The Ex, which boasted Elvis Stojko and Petula Clarke as its other big guests this year, rarely lands such an A-list attraction.

I’m back to see Clinton, but this isn’t the first time I’ve been lured to my old haunt. The turning point came last summer when ’70s singer and Branson, Missouri mainstay Tony Orlando came to perform. My knowledge of Mr. Orlando came from his frequent appearances on the Jerry Lewis Labour Day Telethon, where the washed-up entertainer annually belts out his couple of nearly forgotten hits and generally appears as a sad testament to the fickle nature of fame.

I’m ashamed to say that I went to Orlando’s concert solely to laugh at him. “Any Tony Orlando fans out there?” asked the DJ from the radio station sponsoring the event, and I chortled when the throngs of middle-aged couples enthusiastically cheered this kitschy, hack relic of the ’70s. But when Orlando came out on stage and launched into his repertoire, pausing now and then to tell a funny anecdote or banter with his band, he was actually good. Nobody would confuse him for Bob Dylan, but what he lacked in artistry he made up for in likeability, stage presence, and a keen understanding of how to put on a crowd-pleasing, well-paced show. I daresay that I (gulp) enjoyed his performance un-ironically.

I feel much the same way about Clinton. His speech was a remarkable piece of craftsmanship: from the opening moments when he praised Toronto, talked about how much he enjoys fairs like the Ex, and revealed his memories of Ted Kennedy (whose funeral he had come directly from), it’s clear that this is a man who knows how to make sweet, gentle love to his audience. The thousands of people in the BMO Field were eating out of his hand. When he launched into what I can only assume is his standard speech about the environment, the potential for political unity, and the essential goodness of humanity, he occasionally sprinkled it with crowd-pleasing facts about Toronto and the Ex (did you know that the Ex was the first fair to have electric lights?).

There was nothing life-changing about the speech, and I doubt it really mobilized anyone in the audience, but I appreciated it for what it was: a chance to see an old pro deliver a smooth, well-oiled performance. Later, I headed to Ricoh Coliseum to see an ice show of popular songs from movies, during which Elvis Stojko skated to the Kill Bill theme. This was a pretty dreadful show, but there was Elvis, giving a technically flawless performance and providing some mild entertainment.

The Ex is no longer the Toronto juggernaut it once was, but neither is it the tacky embarrassment I saw in my teens. It’s a charming diversion, a chance to play a game of Bingo, sit in a hammock-chair, try out a Miracle Mop, watch a man being fired out of a cannon, or some cows get milked, and leave your self-consciousness behind. Eating my traditional bag of Tiny Tom donuts, embracing the modest pleasures of this tired old fair, I feel, for the first time in perhaps a decade, a little like Johnny.

Genocide in Sri Lanka

It’s time to start calling the situation what it is.

As Sri Lanka’s three-decade-long civil war drew to a close in May of this year, allegations that the Sri Lankan government engaged in genocide against the ethnic Tamil minority proliferated. The editorial boards of all three national newspapers argue these cries are an overblown and frenzied reaction to a much more complicated problem, and comparisons with similar situations in Cambodia and Rwanda have been dismissed.

This Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Hart House, the Hart House Debates Committee and the Canadian International Council will host a panel entitled Sri Lanka: Short Term Imperatives and Long Term Solutions, which will discuss how to bring about lasting peace in the region. The panelists must not gloss over the inconvenient reality in Sri Lanka: the government has committed genocide in every sense of the word .

The UN Convention on the Crime of Genocide lays out specific conditions for determining whether a particular humanitarian crisis can be considered genocide. According to Article II, genocide is defined in international law as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such.”

Genocide can consist of killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Each of these conditions is present in the Sri Lankan case.

An investigation by the Times of London found that in the final days of the war at least 20,000 Tamil civilians were killed, almost entirely by government shelling after being routed onto a small strip of land. That figure represents nearly three times the number of civilians killed in the Srebenica massacre in the Balkans, which is commonly considered a genocide.

In late 2007, Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, published a report in which he concluded that torture was “widely practiced in Sri Lanka.” A new report by the International Crisis Group, an international NGO set on preventing and resolving crises, details how Sri Lanka has further institutionalized the use of torture against minority Tamils. It notes the “endemic torture” practiced by official state agencies, and draws attention to the courts, especially the Supreme Court, who encourage and “abet human rights violations on a daily basis.”

In blatant defiance of international law, the Sri Lankan government is imprisoning some 270,000 Tamil civilians in detention camps where access by independent media is prohibited, according to Human Rights Watch. Despite unspeakable sanitary conditions, inadequate access to food and water, widespread disease, overcrowding, mental illness, and crime within these camps, the International Committee of the Red Cross has recently been asked to scale down its operations, while other aid workers have been told to leave the island entirely. Although the government had guaranteed that the civilians would be resettled within six months, it has pushed that deadline back and now openly advocates establishing permanent structures within the camps.

The government has set up what it calls “rehabilitation centres” for the reintegration of several hundred child soldiers who were recruited into the Tamil Tigers during the civil war. The reality of these camps, however, is that they “fall short of internationally recognized best practice,” according to a press release issued in July by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, an umbrella group headed by Amnesty International. The Coalition further asserts that these children have inadequate access to their families. The facilities are surrounded by barbed wire.

Despite such evidence, it’s still contended that what’s going on in Sri Lanka is not a genocide. Some argue that even though the government is engaged in “genocidal acts,” the crucial condition of “genocidal intent” is not satisfied. They argue the government’s intent is to prevent the resurgence of the LTTE, the rebel group it defeated in May, and not to harm civilians.

But the government itself has openly acknowledged that the LTTE no longer poses a threat. In late June when the United States issued a travel advisory warning against Sri Lanka because of possible LTTE activity, the Sri Lankan government angrily denied that the LTTE posed any threat whatsoever and called the allegations “totally baseless.”

There is, however, a wealth of documentary evidence showing that the government does indeed intend to harm Tamil former combatents. The nongovernmental group University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), recently issued a report on an incident where government troops slaughtered LTTE fighters after these fighters had surrendered. “The army had for the most part conducted itself in a disciplined manner in trying to protect civilians. But once the command gives a signal for barbarity to be let loose, the men touch the most depraved depths of humanity,” the report reads.

We must first be clear about the nature of a problem before we can even begin to talk about ways of addressing it. Thus, a meaningful international response to what is happening in Sri Lanka must start with recognizing the crisis for what it is: a genocide. Far from being an issue of semantics, acknowledging this would activate legal obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention that countries like Canada have agreed to follow.

In her 2002 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power concludes that one of the reasons for the recurrence of genocide is the unwillingness of policymakers to identify it when it happens. “They avoid use of the word ‘genocide,’” she writes. “Thus they can in good conscience favor stopping genocide in the abstract, while simultaneously opposing [their] involvement in the moment.”

It is impossible to overstate the sense of urgency or seriousness in Sri Lanka. The international community must face the reality.