Striking workers review demands

Striking workers at York University say they are reviewing their demands with the hope of returning to the bargaining table, a sign of possible movement in the strike that has halted most classes on campus for more than two weeks, wrote The Globe and Mail Nov. 22.

The move follows a meeting Thursday of striking union members who work as teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants.

"We are sending our bargaining team back with a new framework. We are reprioritizing our demands," said Christina Rousseau, chair of Local 3903 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the workers.

Rousseau said the bargaining team was meeting yesterday and hoped to contact the mediator about returning to the negotiating table. Job security and the indexation of funding remain top demands, she said.

Wages also have been a major issue in the strike, as has the length of the contract, but Rousseau said she would not discuss possible changes in the union’s position on those matters. "We do not want to negotiate through the media," she said.

Prior to the strike, York’s administration offered the group an increase of 9.25 per cent over three years. The union has asked for 11 per cent over two years, as well as other improvements to benefits and job security of contract employees.

York spokesperson Alex Bilyk, director of media relations, said the University would wait for the mediator’s advice before responding to the union. "We will take our cues from the mediator as to when he feels it would be appropriate for talks to resume," he said.

The labour dispute at the country’s third-largest university has stopped classes for 50,000 students. This week, the University indicated that measures will have to be taken to make up the missed instruction time.

Several groups have been formed by students anxious to get back to class, including one that has asked the province to enact back-to-work legislation. So far, the province has indicated that it is not prepared to take that step.

  • Negotiations remain stalled at York University, where teacher’s assistants and contract faculty have been on strike over proposed benefit concessions since Nov. 6, wrote The Toronto Sun Nov. 24. Classes are cancelled. "They’re not giving us anything to work with…we hope this week they will reach out to us," said Punam Khosla, a negotiator for CUPE Local 3903, which represents the workers.
  • Janine MacLeod is a student of water; how it affects our world, our bodies, even, she suggests, our souls, wrote the Toronto Star Nov. 22.

It’s the focus of the PhD she has just started at York University, for which she reads up to three books a week for class and is editing a journal and writing a book and planning research into how it feels to live near clean water compared to water that is dirty.

To help her afford all this study, York pays MacLeod about $1,000 a month to work as a teaching assistant 10 hours a week. These jobs are one of the ways universities compete for grad students.

But since Nov. 6, MacLeod has been walking a picket line instead. Like most of the 1,600 teaching assistants on strike at York University, MacLeod is both teacher and student, and she says it’s for students that she is fighting for better teaching conditions. "I believe 10 to 15 students in a tutorial is the most you can realistically engage in a discussion where everyone will feel they have a voice – yet our tutorials are twice that; they’re the size of a high school class," said MacLeod, who leads a tutorial for 30 first-year students in an environmental studies course. Among the changes being sought by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3903, is to cap tutorials at 25 students.

"Students need help, and help takes time," said MacLeod. "Some of them are really highly motivated and I try to inspire them to be creative, but others are struggling just to understand the lectures and write coherently, so I have to take them by the hand and give them more direction," she said. "I have them bring me drafts of their essays, often outside office hours. You can’t say to students: ‘Sorry, my 10 hours are up’."

Teaching assistants at York are the best paid in Canada; they earn between $12,000 and $13,000 a year. Yet they say their wages fall short of the poverty line for work that goes far beyond 10 hours a week.

The University offered 9.25 per cent over three years, which it says is fair, given the economy, and reflects settlements in other sectors.

The Star talked to teaching assistants in the Faculty of Environmental Studies to see what the job is like.

What they do: First, they attend the lecture of the professor they assist – so they’ll know the content – and do the class readings, on which they begin to base their tutorials. They prepare one or two tutorials a week, usually an hour each, then teach the tutorials, mark assignments, hold one or more office hours when students can come for help, plus take part in at least one University committee and respond to students’ e-mails.

"In one course I’ve received from 300 to 600 e-mails," said teaching assistant Ranjith Kulatilake, who has won two teaching awards. The 44-year-old PhD student, whose specialty is urban space, said he works hard to be creative, from bringing in guest speakers to staging debates and having students write letters to local politicians. "To be fair, I spend about 40 hours a week on this job. To do it properly in 10 hours is totally unrealistic."

Marking: PhD student Maggie Hutcheson has been a teaching assistant for three years and says "some weeks we do 25 hours of marking, if you allow 20 to 40 minutes per paper for 30 students in each of two classes. If you want to give quality feedback and address issues of writing, it takes time."

Preparing: A good tutorial also takes time to prepare – up to eight hours, MacLeod said.

Hutcheson said if teaching assistants spent just 10 hours on the job, "you wouldn’t get quality education. We’d be unprepared."

  • More than 200 students are headed back to class at York University today, but nearly 50,000 others will continue cooling their heels as a campus-wide strike heads into its 19th day, with no sign of a settlement, wrote the Toronto Star Nov. 24.

Students now are pinning their hopes on efforts by Local 3903 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees – which represents York’s 3,340 teaching assistants, graduate assistants and contract faculty – to get the talks going again.

The union is to present a revised list of demands to a mediator today, while York officials have indicated they’ll wait until after the union’s meeting with the mediator before making a decision on renewing talks.

But for a lucky few studying at York’s Schulich School of Business, school’s back in session. They include 99 exchange students slated to return to their home countries at the end of December, who would have no chance to make up for lost classes in the new year, and 138 York students headed on international exchange in January, who must finish their first term courses by the end of December.

"These are two cohorts of students who would suffer irreparable damage if they can’t start classes again," said Sheila Embleton, York vice-president academic & provost. "They either would have to abandon their course at the end of December and go back home, or stay here into January and abandon their next term at home. And 88 of the York students going on exchange are in the International Bachelor of Business Administration program, which requires that they spend a term abroad." If these students don’t go on exchange this year, they would have to join next year’s cohort, which Embleton said universities abroad might find tough to handle.

"Starting off, the idea (of cancelling classes) was to treat all students equally," said Embleton, "but equal treatment can have unequal impact on some students if they have no chance to, say, stay into May if that were required to make up time," or undergo other adjustments to timetables that could start in January. Under York policy, all courses will have to be adjusted in some way to account for lost time.

While York has exchange students in many programs, few have as high a concentration as business, where the focus on exchanges is part of "training for the global marketplace; it’s almost their branding," Embleton said. "They bill themselves as Canada’s most global business school."

Also, the business school’s teaching staff does not belong to the union, she said.

CUPE official Punam Khosla counters that starting up classes for select groups of students is confusing and unfair. "This is really problematic; the University should not be making an exception for professional programs," said Khosla. "Essentially the University can’t decide whether they’re coming or going. They should just bargain."

Working in his garage, York prof finds evidence of two oceans on Mars

A key sample work from a Mars mission that may prove there were once ancient oceans on the Red Planet was done in the most unlikely of places, wrote The Toronto Sun Nov. 24. Unless, of course, you consider a Thornhill garage to be a major centre in the international science community.

That’s where York University Professor Emeritus Bill Mahaney, of York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Profeesinal Studies, analyzed much of the data beamed back from NASA’s Mars Odyssey, the orbiter that has unearthed groundbreaking evidence about the planet’s surprisingly wet past.

In his home lab, Mahaney, Canada’s sole contributor to the international mission, has been able to detect markings on Mars that show two separate oceans likely existed billions of years ago. "There’s been a lot of water on Mars," he said. "That, we know for sure."

Yet despite the overwhelming indications, the Gamma Ray Spectrometer (GRS) data show the massive bodies of water, the revelation has stirred controversy among planetary geologists. "If you took 100 planetary people and put them in a room, about 50 per cent would believe my theory and 50 per cent wouldn’t," Mahaney said.

Detractors claim the resolution of imagery obtained by the GRS doesn’t necessarily mean the gathering of elements mark a clear enough shoreline to conclude an ocean was once there. Mahaney said evidence is "pretty significant". "You could not move the chemistry we’re talking about without water – a good bit of water," he said. "The sediments around the fringes of these ocean bodies show Mars probably had an atmosphere more conducive to life about 4 billion years ago."

Scientists are deeply involved in the analysis of data gathered from NASA’s Phoenix lander, which touched down on Mars’ surface last May. Phoenix was also able to observe snowfall from Martian clouds in September, something that excited project leaders.

"Seeing water falling from the sky up there was pretty cool," said Cameron Dickinson, a research associate in Yorks’ Faculty of Science & Engineering, who worked on the Phoenix mission. Dickinson said signs of precipitation aren’t enough to prove life exists on Mars already, but added it "certainly" makes it a zone that might be habitable. And while the Phoenix Lander and Mars Odyssey probed different areas of the planet, scientists agree that they saw signs of water in both regions examined.

That only leads to the million-dollar question. "We can get astronauts on Mars when it becomes economically feasible to do so," Dickinson said, adding it would take a financial commitment from the entire space community. "Now, as we understand more about the planet and its atmosphere, it definitely makes that dream easier to explore. Water is the key to everything."

Just her sneakers, a tool belt and a camera

Sitting at a West Hollywood café, dressed in a yellow "Golden Girls" T-shirt and green Roots sweatpants, her straight brown hair slung into a ponytail and without a trace of makeup on her face, 35-year-old Toronto-born photographer Naomi Harris (BFA Hons. ’97) doesn’t look like the kind of girl one would connect with the swingers lifestyle, wrote The Globe and Mail Nov. 24.

Harris, who has been living in New York for the past 11 years, is in Los Angeles for a gallery opening in conjunction with her new book America Swings, which is comprised of photographs from 38 swingers parties Harris attended across a six-year period in the United States.

It was on a nudist beach in Miami in 2002 when Harris was asked to attend her first swingers party. Though she had no intention of participating, Harris, who says she is open to new experiences, accepted the invitation. “I thought it was the weirdest thing,” she says. “There was a huge buffet and then they all went to have sex in the back room. After eating a heavy meat meal, to go and have sex was funny to me. I made a decision, then, that this was what I wanted to do. Right from the get-go, the plan was to do a book with gallery shows.”

Harris says that she was propositioned at every party she documented, but adds that she didn’t feel pressured to join in and didn’t engage in the extracurricular activities. “I’m not a swinger. I am a jealous person. If I find my Mr. Right, I couldn’t share.” She emphasizes she was not out to exploit anyone through her photos. In order to blend with the swinger environment, she’d often dress in nothing but sneakers and a tool belt. “It’s just what was appropriate,” she says, casually. “I’m not going to wear a turtleneck and jeans if everyone’s naked. Go with the flow.”

Despite living for more than a decade in the United States, Harris, who studied fine arts at York University’s Faculty of Fine Arts before attending the International Center of Photography in New York City, strongly identifies as a Canadian. However, living here did not help her career, she says.

Osgoode grads took instructions from congress president

If the controversy over Canadian human rights law and free speech could be said to have had a singular genesis, it was one evening two years ago at the Al Madina Egyptian restaurant in a Waterloo strip mall, when a group of York University law students sat down for dinner with their patron, Mohamed Elmasry, a professor of microchip design and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, wrote the National Post Nov. 22. At issue was the treatment of Islam in Maclean’s magazine, and after considering criminal complaints or a civil case, the group decided on the quasi-judicial compromise, human rights commissions.

Elmasry said he represents more than 70 per cent of Canada’s Muslim population, which he pegs at one million. Over two hours, he was friendly and forthcoming, good-humoured if not actually funny, not as well informed on the particulars of human rights law as his pro bono lawyer Faisal Joseph, nor as bullishly charismatic as Osgoode grad Khurrum Awan (LLB ’07), the front man of the young lawyers, who are popularly known, even, in jest, by themselves, as the "Sock Puppets" because it was widely assumed they were acting on Elmasry’s behalf. Elmasry said both those men, in their numerous public and media appearances, were always acting "upon my instruction".

Most Champlain biographies offer sparse information, says York prof

There can’t be many people who have made such an indelible imprint on the imagination and history of Canada as Samuel de Champlain about whom so little personal information is known, wrote York Professor Emeritus Conrad Heidenreich of York’s Faculty of Arts, in a review of David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream for The Globe and Mail Nov. 22.

Every biographer of Champlain has used Champlain’s own writings almost exclusively. In some of the better biographies, such as Morris Bishop’s Champlain: The Life of Fortitude (1949), an attempt was made to place Champlain’s life into the setting of 16th- and 17th-century France and Canada. The worst are simply uncritically plagiarized versions of earlier biographies augmented by a cursory reading of Champlain’s writings. With no attempt at a systematic search, this reviewer has found and read, or rather attempted to read, some 27 Champlain biographies written between 1865 and 2004, as well as nine biographies for youthful readers, two plays and one epic poem.

The Globe noted Heidenreich and Janet Ritch, of the Division of Humanities, Faculty of Arts, are preparing a new bilingual edition of Champlain’s writings for the Champlain Society.

Suzuki cites York prof’s book on sustainable economy

A timely new book by York University environmental economist Peter Victor, Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster, addresses the absurdity of an economic system based on endless growth, wrote David Suzuki and Faisal Moola in an article for BC’s Westender Nov. 20 and the Times & Transcript (Moncton) Nov. 24. Victor also shows that the concept of growth as an indispensable feature of economics is a recent phenomenon.

If at first you don’t succeed…

York grad Nino Ricci (BA Spec. Hons. ’81) is proof that persistence pays off in the end, wrote Niagara This Week Nov. 21. In fact, his whole literary career is wrapped around the message, "If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again." The Canadian author shared the story of his early days of writing with the Grimsby Author Series Nov. 10, at Casablanca Winery Inn.

Things looked pretty bleak to begin with, Ricci started a creative writing course at York University in 1977, where under famous Canadian author W.O. Mitchell, he lasted just three weeks. "I think I learned more in those three weeks than subsequently," joked Ricci in front of a crowded audience.

Asked to write 70 pages of text in the first three weeks, it wasn’t long before Ricci got a special invite to meet with Mitchell. Thinking positively going in, it wasn’t long before he was told by Mitchell he should drop creative writing or he would fail. "He said, ‘I read through (the work), and there is nothing there’," Ricci recalled.

York prof says Vaughan case should go before the integrity commissioner

More questions are surfacing around two cheques Vaughan Regional Councillor Joyce Frustaglio signed more than a year ago, but this time it’s the longtime politician asking the questions, wrote the Vaughan Citizen Nov. 21.

While some councillors don’t believe an investigation should happen, Robert MacDermid, political science professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, said the issue is one that should be handled by the integrity commissioner. "It strikes me that the most obvious thing is that the integrity commissioner should be looking at something like this. The councillors have a code of conduct. They’re expected to follow that. There’s a complaint process that can lead to the integrity commissioner ruling on whether that is appropriate behaviour or not," MacDermid said.

Now you can blame those extra pounds on the ‘ice age’ gene

As the days get shorter and colder, many people crave rich, fatty foods almost as much they do an extra hour or two of sleep in the morning, wrote The Globe and Mail Nov. 22. Robert Levitan, a senior clinical researcher at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), and his colleagues – York University psychologist Caroline Davis of York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science, Faculty of Health, and CAMH neurogeneticist James Kennedy – theorize that people who have [a specific gene] are more likely to consume satisfying, rich foods in the winter because it gives them a much-needed boost of dopamine, a chemical associated with the pleasure system in the brain.

Leaders meet in Peru for crisis talks

Political scientist Gregory Chin, of York’s Faculty of Arts and the York Centre for Asian Research, says China has successfully used what he calls its multiple identities to increase its influence in the world, wrote the Toronto Star Nov. 22 in a story about the G-20 summit meeting in Peru. On the one hand, it is a developing nation, a charter member of what former Chinese leader Mao Zedong labelled the third world. Yet on the other, it is the globe’s workshop, a major power whose economy is expected to soon exceed Japan’s.

Only recently, says Chin, have Canada and the US "woken up and realized what has been going on in their hemisphere while they were focusing on the war on terror and Iraq/Afghanistan."

Giller winner Boyden embraces heritage

Although he has published two novels with aboriginal protagonists, and identifies with aboriginal spirituality, this year’s Giller Prize winner, Joseph Boyden (BA Hons. ’91), says he is no “Indian wannabe,” wrote the Winnipeg Free Press Nov. 23. “I have one-eighth aboriginal blood, the same amount as Louis Riel,” says the acclaimed Ontario-born writer who teaches at the University of New Orleans. “It’s a small but incredibly important part of who I am.”

His father was a successful physician who was decorated for his bravery as a field doctor in the Second World War. His maternal grandmother was Métis, though he has no family members who attended residential schools nor any who participated in aboriginal cultural life. “I attend smudges and sweats,” says Boyden, who did his undergraduate arts degree at York University. “It’s like a reclamation for me.”

Nation still hungers for the truth

One of the greatest hidden tragedies of the 20th century, on a scale comparable to that of the Holocaust, is the Soviet sponsored famine that ravaged Ukraine in 1932-1933, wrote Christina Dykun in an opinion piece for The Calgary Sun Nov. 23. Canada, unlike other countries, has officially recognized the ‘Holodomor’ (Great Famine) as genocide in 2008, only two years after Ukraine.

Orest Subtelny, a Ukrainian-Canadian historian and political science professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, has not only furthered the field through research, but his publications have allowed for widespread dissemination of information on the topic of the Holodomor.

His book Ukraine: A History has found great popularity in Ukraine, with over one million copies in circulation.

Brownlow pens readable, thinker’s book for all tastes

Irish scholar, poet and teacher Tim Brownlow‘s accent could have belonged to Yeats or Joyce, wrote BC’s Cowichan News Leader and Pictorial Nov. 20. But Brownlow’s recent biographical collection of essays, Hiding Places, isn’t aimed at English literature academics, but literate folks with curious minds.

"I want people to come away from my book with more knowledge about Ireland and my love of art in general," the Glenora resident, who graduated with a PhD from York’s Faculty of Arts in 1976, said of his 270-pager. "I also want them to say this book has lots of information but it’s a very good read too, and that’s rare in academe."

Despite Ireland’s "tormented history", Brownlow’s childhood was happy as a southern Irish Anglican before "Ulster became murderous…. I decided at nearly 30 just to get out." The English lit teacher immigrated to Toronto, took a doctorate at York University, and then shifted to BC in 1991.

York film grad hopes for a long run on ‘Jeopardy!’

Nathaniel Barnes (BFA ’01), a 30-year-old graduate of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, has made it as a contestant onto the hit game show, “Jeopardy!”, which airs 7:30pm on CBC tonight, wrote The Globe and Mail Nov. 24. In addition to his studies, Barnes is also a composer and part-time bartender.