Where have all the songbirds gone?

Two decades ago at a field station on Lake Opinicon north of Kingston, science undergraduate Bridget Stutchbury discovered that biology was her true calling, began a Toronto Star feature Jan. 1 about the York University biology professor and her research. In quick succession, Stutchbury, 42, developed a fascination with birds and then with a new field called conservation biology. Finally, this year, results from her most recent research will be published in scientific journals, putting together the pieces of one of biology’s most pressing puzzles — figuring out why North America’s songbirds are in sharp decline.

The possibility of galvanizing people into action, as happened with the studies of acid rain in the 1970s, is what’s increasingly driving Stutchbury, a professor in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering. “I’d like to emulate a modern-day Rachel Carson and ring the alarm bells,” she said. While Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring warned about chemical pesticides, Stutchbury is pointing the finger at a problem that’s equally ubiquitous and damaging, but more difficult for the public to grasp — habitat fragmentation.

In particular, she’s concerned about the break-up and disappearance of mixed forests in Canada and the United States, where a couple of hundred different species of birds breed in the summer and of the rain forests in the tropics where they migrate to spend the winter. Stutchbury wants people to know that bird decline is as much a global issue as climate change, since the annual cycle of migratory species spans thousands of kilometres. “It’s a very sobering thought that humans have the capacity to disrupt this kind of animal, all along its range.”

Champion of social justice spoke out for the wrongfully convicted

The media celebrated the life of York law Professor Dianne Martin, who died Dec. 20 of a heart attack at 59 (see Headline News).

She was a champion of social justice who used her legal training and expertise to speak out on behalf of the poor, the handicapped and the wrongfully convicted, wrote The Globe and Mail’s Sandra Martin in a Dec. 23 obituary of the York law professor. “She always had the capacity to force the criminal-justice system to ask harder questions of itself,” said David Cole, a judge on the Ontario Court of Justice. “She made us uncomfortable and she was absolutely right to do so.”

She was a voice of social conscience, a woman colleagues knew as “a passionate person devoted to all manner of fairness and human rights,” and no less than a “hero” to at least one of those she fought for, Romeo Phillion, wrote Phillip Mascoll and Harold Levy in the Toronto Star Dec. 21.

She co-founded York University’s Innocence Project, which puts students to work on the cases of the wrongfully convicted no one else will touch. She also testified as an expert witness in the Guy Paul Morin inquiry, reported the National Post Dec. 21. As well, she taught a generation of young lawyers to do as she did and ”speak truth to power.”

She was an Osgoode Hall professor and co-founder of the Innocence Project, which uses DNA, other modern forensics and hard-slogging investigation to argue the innocence of the wrongfully convicted, one good example being Phillion, who was released last year after 32 years in prison. Describing Martin as an important left-wing lawyer who was always ready and willing to denounce prison conditions, the death penalty and various forms of discrimination, Kirk Makin, The Globe’s justice reporter, said she was both press-friendly and press-savvy. “She spoke extremely clearly and forcefully, yet didn’t let her allegations or complaints become unreasonable or go beyond what could be proved in a pinch. That is a rarer skill than people might think.”

CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning” and “Ontario Today” also paid homage to Martin Dec. 21.

York deserves to have subway

The Dec. 18 editorial criticizing York University’s efforts to get politicians to commit to a subway solution for the northwest part of the city is regrettable, wrote York senior policy adviser Ted Spence in a letter to the Toronto Star Dec. 23. “Here is York’s message to those who live in the bustling northwest quadrant of the GTA, and to the 60,000 students, faculty and staff who commute to York: you deserve a lasting solution. Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t speak up and demand better transit,” he said. “It is precisely because politicians’ priorities change that we want a guarantee that the dedicated busway on York land will be temporary until the subway is built. Call it brash or presumptuous, but we are here to stay. Heavy traffic to and from this region will only increase, thanks to unstoppable growth patterns and a new stadium on the immediate horizon.

“City planning studies have confirmed that residents of northwest Toronto have some of the worst TTC connections in the city,” Spence continued. “The traffic gridlock on the boundary of York Region and Toronto is as bad as anywhere in the GTA. In 1996, when the Spadina subway was extended to Downsview, no one could have imagined that nine years later the subway would still end at Downsview station.

“While the proposed interim busway will provide significant improvements in travel times for transit riders to the university, it will not change the travel patterns of other commuters. It will not help residents of Jane-Finch. It will not relieve the cross-border traffic gridlock. And it will not relieve overcrowding on the Yonge subway.

“The proposed subway extension through the university would link to a major York Region transit gateway at Steeles Ave., including a regional bus terminal and a 3,000-car commuter parking lot close to the interchange of Highways 400 and 407. A subway investment would transform travel and development patterns in the northwest quadrant of the GTA.

“York University has worked with the TTC on both the busway and the subway studies. We have proposed viable options for interim bus improvements for our commuters. However, the subway extension is the only solution to the larger transportation problems in this area.”

  • Earlier, on Dec. 17, The Globe and Mail’s John Barber wrote: “As perverse as it may be to resist a $30-million transit improvement of immediate, tangible benefit to students and staff – and it is – York is wise to worry about the potential permanence of this allegedly temporary bus scheme. The University has lobbied for the subway extension fruitlessly for 10 years and now, magically, every piece has fallen into place. Understandably, it’s holding out.”
  • The Toronto Star editorialized Dec. 18: “It is entirely understandable that York University officials want subway service extended to their campus.” It concluded that “if it works well in delivering fast, efficient service, transit commissioners could then re-evaluate their priorities,” and proceed with construction.

Henry VIII and his wives knew the power of the pen

Bibliography has, traditionally, been one of the most esoteric of scholarly arts – yet, in the right hands and with the right material, it can reveal riches. And the dividend has never been greater than in a new study of the books of King Henry VIII and his six wives by the Canadian scholar (and English professor in York’s Faculty of Arts) James Carley, wrote a reviewer in The Times of London Jan. 1. Carley looks at their books not only as objects but also as property, and he uses them to cast light on the intimate details of a love affair and the profound issues of religious schism.

Catherine of Aragon would stand side by side her husband Henry VIII in the battle of the books against Lutheranism. This partnership came to an abrupt end when Henry fell passionately in love with Anne Boleyn in 1526-27. It was shortly after this that Henry accumulated a working library (as opposed to his father’s display library at Richmond) to enable him and his researchers to formulate the theological and legal arguments against his first marriage.

We can also see, in Henry’s library, evidence of an important cultural change, said The Times. The books of Henry’s father, Henry VII, and his grandfather, Edward IV, were large, ostentatious and designed to be read aloud; Henry, in contrast, as an illustration in his psalter shows, read books in an armchair in the comfort of his bedchamber. Reading, in other words, had changed from a public to a private activity and, as it did so, the real age of the book began. The change, moreover, not only took place in Henry’s reign but the king and his wives, whether as readers, writers or collectors of books, played a key role in it.

Pepler talks about students who ‘reward’ bullies’ behaviour

“Psychologist Debra Pepler of York University is Canada’s pre-eminent expert on bullying,” wrote the Toronto Star’s Louise Brown Dec. 18. Pepler has observed hundreds of elementary-school bullies over the past decade and found that 75 per cent of children who watch a bullying incident focus on the bully, rather than the victim — which feeds the fighting frenzy. “Simply by being there and watching, you’re giving the message that you’re interested in it, and that’s a positive message to the bully,” said Pepler, who also was named to Ontario’s new Safe Schools Action Team and is founder of the Canadian Initiative on the Prevention of Bullying, funded by Canada’s National Crime Prevention Strategy. When a bystander does step in, Pepler’s research shows, the fight will stop within 10 seconds in more than half of cases. “Aggression is about power and status, and the more people watch, the more reward the bully gets,” she said. “But if no one watches, there’s no payback.”

Pepler was also mentioned in a story about the provincial safety team in the Dec. 19 edition of Oshawa-Whitby-Clarington This Week. Patricia Manson, education director of the Durham Catholic District School Board, said the board particularly welcomed the appointment of Pepler, who has worked before on the Durham board’s anti-bullying programs.

York alumna is co-founder of Coach Potatoes company

The Edmonton Journal carried an article on Dec. 20 about York alumna Laurel Vespi (BA/BEd. ’81), one of two certified life coaches who run Coach Potatoes, a company that helps people and corporations clarify and reach their goals. The article notes that Vespi and business partner Bev Baker-Hofmann are both former special education teachers and members of the International Coach Federation.

Shortage of places sending would-be teachers to US

The Peterborough Examiner included York in a list of universities that “offer the highly-competitive bachelor of education program” in a Dec. 20 story about Ontario students who can’t find places in faculties of education and opt for training at US border colleges. The article noted “some students take out lines of credit to pay more than $17,000 US in international tuition fees.” The story cited Ontario ministry of education statistics that showed there were 15,000 Ontario applicants competing for 6,500 available spaces in 2003. The article also noted that Ontario’s ministry of education has added 1,000 teacher training spaces in 2004-05 and 2005-06, costing about $15 million over two years.

Father, daughter tackle York studies together

Oshawa-Whitby-Clarington This Week carried a story Dec. 19 about York student Michael Drake and fellow student Laura Wilson, his daughter. The pair spent the past year in the prepatory course for the Uniform Final Exam (UFE), which qualifies people to become chartered accountants, offered by York’s Division of Continuing Education in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies. Drake said “he wouldn’t have survived 12 months of studying and more than 20 hours of exams without her support.”

UK historian reviews Cohen’s Love and Death in Renaissance Italy

“Much of Thomas V. Cohen‘s Love and Death in Renaissance Italy describes Thomas V. Cohen at work. He writes with a mirror before him,” said British historian Blair Worden, in a review of the York history professor’s latest book in the Dec. 19 issue of Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “Cohen is an able and responsible scholar, who resists the wilder flights of postmodernist fancy. He does not fall for the theory, which has wrought such confusion, that the writing of history barely differs from the writing of fiction,” Worden wrote, adding “Cohen’s yarns, which he has patiently and skilfully assembled, have their moments.” But Worden also commented on Cohen’s “half-acknowledged” struggles to “apply these incidents towards the discovery of general truths about the society where they occurred,” and pointed to the author’s “mannered language [that] becomes a substitute for observation.”

Ottawa on the hot seat over $1B flight training contract, says York expert

York defence analyst Martin Shadwick was quoted in a story carried by several CanWest newspapers on Dec. 18 about an imminent federal government decision on which company will get a billion-dollar contract to to provide military pilots with training for the next 20 years. The Vancouver Sun, The Ottawa Citizen and The Montreal Gazette all reported that the choice is between Quebec’s embattled Bombardier Inc. and a British Columbia-based consortium, Kelowna Flightcraft. Shadwick, a strategic studies expert with York’s Centre for International & Security Studies, said cabinet will be carefully looking over the air-training contract but added, “even if Bombardier is clearly the winner in this program, the optics will look bad….It will be perceived as a gift to Bombardier. It will be a Bristol-type of thing all over again,” Shadwick said, referring to a controversial decision in 1986 when then-prime minister Brian Mulroney awarded Canadair of Montreal a CF-18 maintenance contract even though its competitor, Bristol Aerospace of Winnipeg, had a lower bid.

Don’t look to courts for social justice, says Osgoode’s Hutchinson

Allan Hutchinson, associate dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, wrote in The Globe and Mail Dec. 20 that the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage has put the constitution and the court “firmly back in the public limelight.” Comparing decisions by the court to acknowledge tobacco companies rights to “freedom of expression” in advertising and yet deny autistic children’s rights to medical treatment, Hutchinson said “it can now be safely reported that [the courts] have managed to craft…a screwed-up constitution. The promise of a People’s Charter is only a fleeting memory. The fact that the Supreme Court has accorded constitutional status to tobacco corporations and denied it to autistic children should cause everyone to question the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There can be no starker evidence that we have gone wildly astray in our efforts to protect and advance ordinary people’s rights.”

Wood reviews latest history of Hollywood

Robin Wood, professor emeritus in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, wrote a review of The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, the latest book by David H. Thomson, in The Globe and Mail Dec. 18. Wood said, “there seems little need to recommend this book, its author’s name guaranteeing its interest, distinction and, above all, readability.” But Wood said the book “is not your standard history of movies (though of course they figure in it), but a probing, wide-ranging, complex investigation of Hollywood itself: how it came into being, how it developed, how it has functioned, how it has affected our culture and our lives.” While noting that there was much to argue with in the book – “the critical judgments [are] often conventional, occasionally eccentric, and seldom argued or supported” – Wood, who teaches a graduate course in the Department of Film & Video, admitted, “I enjoyed reading it and how many avenues of thought it awakened.”

On air

  • Selma Odom, a York University dance historian in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, joined FM 89.5 CIUT’s “Evi-Dance” contributor Samara Thompson Dec. 12 to talk about her book Canadian Dance: Visions and Stories, which she co-edited with York University dance historian Mary Jane Warner.