Suddenly teen pregnancy is cool?

Unplanned pregnancy is now a pop-culture staple, wrote Maclean’s in its Jan. 28 cover story. Movies like Knocked Up and Waitress, and celebrity moms including Nicole Richie and Jessica Alba, are part of a trend that’s sweeping teen culture along with it: “American Idol” star Fantasia Barrino became a mom at 17, and the last season of “Degrassi: The Next Generation” ended with Emma realizing she might be pregnant.

"As an idea, teen pregnancy is more socially accepted," says Andrea O’Reilly, a women’s studies professor at York University, and director of the Association for Research on Mothering. "There’s a redefining of motherhood," says O’Reilly. "Teen moms are saying, why can’t I be a mother now?" She believes that as older women are gaining acceptance as new mothers, adolescent girls are claiming their maternal rights too. "Before, the time of motherhood was so restricted. Now it’s okay at 48. So why not at 18?"  

The feminist motherhood movement, as O’Reilly refers to the growing show of support for moms of all ages, has people questioning societal expectations about when is the right time to have children. "It’s part of a larger revisioning of motherhood: queer mothers, old mothers, young mothers. That wasn’t possible 20 years ago."  

"It’s a rescripting of what we know as a teen mom," says O’Reilly. Historically, they were demonized, or worse: they were known as "the disappeared," she says. "You were shipped off to Aunt Martha’s" for an abortion or to put the baby up for adoption. Now, "there’s more cultural permission to be a young mother than 10 or 20 years ago," believes O’Reilly. "It’s not a death sentence."  

Regent Park renewal – the second time around

In the 50 odd years since it was conceived as a utopian neighbourhood, all the well-intentioned planning for Canada’s first and largest social housing project, Regent Park, was turned on its head, wrote the Ottawa Citizen Jan. 19. Expansive green spaces became no-man’s land. Ample exits and entrances meant drug dealers could easily shake police. The absence of streets meant cops – and more significantly, ambulances – had trouble getting in. In short, Regent Park became a gangster’s paradise.  

Now, for the second time in just over half a century, authorities have decided to start anew at the downtown Toronto housing project, and are demolishing the entire six square city block neighbourhood in a $1 billion, 15-year endeavour. Authorities in Ottawa, Vancouver and Montreal – cities with similar social housing sites – are watching closely and learning some surprising lessons.  

Doug Young, a professor in York University’s Urban Studies Program, Faculty of Arts, faults the city’s decision to raze the entire neighbourhood rather than reworking the existing stock. Ironically, the modernist planners who came up with the original plan in the 1940s began with the same premise. Those planners looked down on the pre-existing neighbourhood, a sloppy mix of poorly-maintained homes and businesses facing onto busy streets where children played willy-nilly. "The solution was to erase the whole neighbourhood and start from scratch," says Young. "It’s kind of ironic that one of the critiques of the original development was that it erased entirely a pre-existing neighbourhood and the current redevelopment has taken the same position, that the current situation is unsalvageable, so we’ll erase it entirely. Only this time, we’ll get it right."  

"Maybe it speaks to the inability of planning to create perfect environments," says Young. "Maybe it’s unrealistic of us to expect that they can. Or that we can predict the future. Or maybe it’s easier to say oh, it’s poorly planned than to confront the reality of poverty and racism."

Poverty fuels violence

There is well established research literature that the best predictor of homicide rates in a jurisdiction is the gap between rich and poor, wrote Dennis Raphael, a York professor in Atkinson’s School of Health Policy& Management, in a letter published Jan. 21 in The Toronto Sun. The United Way and others have been documenting the growing gap and deepening poverty in Toronto over the past 20 years. The third homicide in Toronto this year took place around the corner from me early last Thursday evening and involved another innocent bystander, noted Raphael. Homicide number two involved a bystander catching a bullet in the head on Yonge Street. Perhaps it is time for me to consider teaching this material in a jurisdiction where policymakers and elected representatives take these issues seriously, wrote Raphael. It may save my life.

The city of neighbourhoods wears its mantle of amalgamation heavily

Amalgamation got rid of five city halls, five postal addresses and innumerable other touchstones signalling the many distinct regions in Toronto. But the shadow city lives on, wrote Patricia Chisholm in an opinion piece published Jan. 19 in The Globe and Mail. Everyone still uses the old names – North York, Etobicoke, Scarborough, East York, York. How else are we to have any idea who we are?

Too often, it’s absurdly difficult to assess what is going on in the megacity. In media reports, intersections such as Jane and Finch or O’Connor and Pape or Kennedy and Eglinton stand in for the evocative words everyone is saying to themselves: Downsview, East York, Scarborough. I constantly find myself trying to place events in terms of the shadow city; once I do, things seem to take on a focus, a context that is not otherwise available, wrote Chisholm. A shooting on Driftwood Avenue? Okay. That’s the northwest corner of North York, also known as Downsview, adjacent to flourishing York University, and the street where some law-school colleagues lived in the late 1970s. The townhouses were relatively new then, and cheap, but safe. Now, every time I hear of another small child, or single mother, or teenager who didn’t make it there, a chill comes over me. That’s not the way things used to be – why aren’t we paying attention?

More police officers face once-rare perjury charges

A growing number of Canadian police officers are facing charges of perjury – the serious and usually rare crime of giving false testimony, reported The Globe and Mail Jan. 21. At least eight officers, either active or recently retired, will heading be to courts in Toronto, Winnipeg and Regina over the next two months accused of an offence that carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. "I have not seen this many examples of perjury charges brought against police officers," says James Morton (LLB ’85), a Toronto lawyer and adjunct professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. "I don’t think this means that police are lying more than they used to," he said. "It used to be that people just didn’t believe policemen would lie. That sort of restriction has disappeared now."

Perjury is viewed as dangerous enough to the justice system that it’s actually enshrined in Canada’s Constitution, Morton notes. Most serious when the accusation is levelled against a member of the justice system, perjury is extremely difficult to prove. Prosecutors have to show not only that the evidence was false, but that it was intentionally false. "When a police officer actually does intentionally mislead the court, that’s a tremendously dangerous thing. It has the effect of leading to wrongful convictions and poisoning the whole system," Morton said.

Constitution? Who needs it when there’s Facebook?

The Facebook generation has no interest in enshrining Quebec’s identity in the Canadian constitution or defining the federal spending power, says the dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, reported The Gazette (Montreal) Jan. 19. Patrick Monahan was the first speaker Friday at a Canadian Constitutional Affairs Conference in Montreal and he said he can’t see the reopening of the basic law defining Canadian federalism "anytime soon, notwithstanding Mr. Harper’s musings."

The prime minister said in end-of-year interviews that the status of the Québécois nation, recognized in 2006 in a House of Commons motion, should be enshrined in the constitution. But Monahan said he doesn’t expect a new round of constitutional change "for another 15 to 20 years." Monahan said that after Charlottetown was rejected he thought a new window would open but, more than 15 years later, he no longer sees that happening and points to the Internet. Since 1992, the development of the Internet is comparable to the arrival of the telephone or the automobile, he said. "It changes the very nature of social interaction." Young people in particular use the Internet for social groupings like Facebook, Myspace and consult Wikipedia. "Government has very little impact or relevance to this phenomenon."

The history of doughnuts reveals much about Canadians

The history of Canada’s favourite snack tells our story more relevantly and succinctly than any high school textbook I’ve ever seen, wrote The Globe and Mail in a Jan. 19 review of The Donut : A Canadian History. The Donut traces the origin of the deep-fried American confection from its Canadian debut to the present day. In so doing, Steve Penfold (PhD ’02) examines postwar Canadian identity for what it really is: a complex blend of diverse communities and class struggle in which it’s hard to fix on any single object to represent national solidarity (if there is such a thing).

"Much of donut folklore," Penfold notes, "plays on a sense of ironic pride in marginal status, simultaneously poking fun at the unsophisticated hinterland and the pretentious metropolis." With this observation as his starting premise, he looks for Canadian culture in the seemingly unlikely locations of doughnut shops, franchises and distributors. "In an age of fragmented identity, regional grievances and segmented selling, donut folklore imagines that, perhaps, donut shops can link all Canadians together, or at the very least distinguish us from Americans," Penfold suggests.

  • The Ottawa Citizen published an excerpt Jan. 19 from The Donut: A Canadian History in which Penfold writes that Maple Leaf and doughnut shop owner Tim Horton’s death in a car accident “marked a turning point in his status as a Canadian icon. Instead of solidifying his status as a masculine myth, it ensured for him a much different, and much quirkier, path to pop culture iconography….Tim Hortons commands both the Canadian doughnut business and its cultural meaning.”

A missed opportunity

The Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith must be kicking themselves in their collective butts now that David Ahenakew’s conviction on hate speech charges has been overturned on appeal for the second time, wrote Terry Heinrichs, political science professor at York’s Glendon campus, in a letter published Jan. 19 in the National Post. Contrary to the section 319 (2) strategy where you can get a conviction only if you can meet a relatively stringent intent requirement and show that hatred was promoted rather than, say, merely demonstrated, the two groups would have been better to use the strategy now preferred by Islamic activists to shut down expression they find offensive, namely, the Human Rights strategy.

Had they taken their case to the Saskatchewan HRC rather than the provincial courts, all the CJC and BB would have had to show was that Ahenakew permitted his remarks to be published, and that these remarks exposed, or tended to expose, to hatred or ridicule, or that they belittled, or otherwise affronted the dignity of Jews in Saskatchewan, wrote Heinrichs. With no "intent" or "promotion" test to meet, and with the broadest reach of any of the Human Rights Codes in the country, the two groups would easily have received the conviction they wanted, Heinrichs suggested. Oh, yes, they also could have obtained from the HRC precisely the same punishment the trial judge handed Ahenakew, namely a $1,000 fine. Rats!

New respect for China missionary

Like most of the missionaries who came from around the world seeking converts, James Mellon Menzies is almost unknown to most Chinese people, reported The Globe and Mail Jan. 19. But after decades of obscurity, he is finally being recognized by scholars, not because he tried to save China’s soul, but because he tried to unravel and preserve its remarkable past.

No ordinary man of god, Menzies was a skilled, if amateur, archeologist – the first scientist to study the astonishing relics at the site of Yin, the last capital of the Shang dynasty, the Bronze Age civilization that thrived more than three millennia ago. He was one of the first to decipher the "oracle bones" – the 3,000-year-old turtle shells and sheep bones that contained China’s first written language. He was a pioneer in learning how to determine the age of the bones. He built the world’s largest private collection of oracle bones – more than 35,000 pieces.

"Shard by shard, he became the foremost non-Chinese expert on Bronze Age China," Linfu Dong (PhD ’01) says in Cross Culture and Faith, a groundbreaking biography of Menzies based on the author’s doctoral thesis at York University. "By following the principles of ‘no business deals’ and keeping the artifacts in China, Menzies set an ethical and practical example for foreign scholars to participate in Chinese archeology…. This was truly unusual for a collector at that time when foreign collectors missed no opportunity to export Chinese artifacts legally or illegally, paying no attention to Chinese sentiment and regulations."

Poet sees urban sprawl as nuclear shockwave

Last fall, Toronto Star photographer Lucas Oleniuk set out to document environmental degradation in Ontario and came back with the basis of a haunting short film called Airsick. The film inspired essays published Jan. 19 in the Star’s Ideas section, including one by poet and York creative writing instructor Christopher Dewdney, who compared urban sprawl to the shockwave that follows a nuclear bomb blast. He wrote:

Most of us have seen footage from the pre-dawn nuclear tests that the US conducted in Nevada during the late 1950s and early 1960s – the countdown, the anticipation and then, suddenly, the empty desert landscape is flooded with a blinding flash as the bomb detonates some 10 or 20 miles distant from the position of the documentary film camera capturing the blast. As the light gradually dims you begin to see the shape of the mushroom cloud, its cap a glowing fireball rising into the sky. The light from the fireball illuminates the desert around the explosion, as well as the distant mountains behind it. It’s visually spectacular in a grotesque sort of way, and harmlessly distant, until you notice something racing along the ground – a low disc spreading out from the base of the mushroom cloud. The shockwave.

The metaphor is straightforward, I guess, wrote Dewdney. Toronto’s downtown office towers are the mushroom cloud rising toward the sky and the suburbs are the shockwave, racing over the desert. Only instead of desert this shockwave is levelling forests and streams and farmland. And there is another difference. Suburban sprawl is much more dangerous, and permanent, than an atomic concussion.  

Bigger roles come for actor who started in commerce

It was Stanley Kowalski who instilled a desire to act in Todd Sandomirsky (MFA ’90), reported The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) Jan. 21. Sandomirsky was finishing up a commerce degree at the University of Saskatchewan some 17 years ago when a group of friends decided to attend a play together. It was A Streetcar Named Desire. "I hadn’t even seen a play before," said Sandomirsky in a recent interview from his home in Toronto.

“I remember seeing this play and seeing the actor playing Stanley. I was just blown away. I thought, ‘you mean people actually get paid to do this stuff?’” The commerce direction wasn’t really working for Sandomirsky, which was a sign to move into a different career. He’s glad he did, especially now that some exciting movie roles are coming his way.

Sandomirsky switched gears, studied acting for a summer at UCLA, and landed at York University to take his master of fine arts degree. A stint at Stratford followed his graduation, where he worked with luminaries like Brian Bedford, Colm Feore, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. After Stratford, Todd settled in Toronto and co-founded Shakespeare in the Rough – one of the city’s two permanent professional summer Shakespeare companies.

On air

  • York film student Vince Pilon, who just completed a co-op program at TVCogeco in Cornwall, discussed breaking into the movie industry, on Cornwall radio stations CJUL-AM Jan. 18.
  • Marc Lesage, sociology professor at York’s Glendon campus, commented on the shooting deaths of two innocent bystanders in Toronto in less than a week, on Radio Canada Jan. 18.