Parents use Facebook to put heat on York

Parents should think twice about sending their teens to York University because of ongoing labour troubles, says a family that has launched a Facebook group and blog pressing for an end to a strike that is now in its 10th week, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 13.

With tomorrow’s university application deadline looming, Dagmar Kanzler and David Ross – parents of a second-year student – say they need to "warn other parents that York is not able to deliver the education" it promised because classes have been cancelled for almost all of the school’s 50,000 students since the strike began Nov. 6.

"Both the University and the union have completely lost track of the fact that this is all about the students," said Kanzler. "It’s not about them. It’s about 50,000 people who are just in limbo right now – people whose futures are going to be permanently affected."

The University and the union representing its 3,340 teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants aren’t talking. Late last week, the University asked the Ontario Labour Ministry to organize a supervised vote on its latest offer, which includes a 9.25 per cent wage increase over three years.

No date has yet been set for the vote on the offer, but if employees approve it, the strike would end.

Local 3903 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the striking workers, had planned a rally for noon Tuesday to protest the forced vote.

York spokesperson Alex Bilyk said parents can call the University for information and that "the quickest way to get our students back into class is for our employees to vote yes for the offer, which is reasonable and sustainable."

He said the labour disruption could hurt applications for next fall, but once it’s over academic programs will go on. However, so far, the strike hasn’t appeared to scare off potential students, guidance counsellors across the province say. Ronna Stulberg, at Albert Campbell Collegiate in Scarborough, said she has "not heard one single concern". Joanne Brown, the guidance head at Maple High School in York Region, said 79 per cent of the students applying for university there have chosen York, which is consistent with other years. "The only thing I am seeing is potentially an increase in applications to Ryerson as well, whereas students in the past may have only applied to York," she said.

Of 150 university applications, 119 students have chosen at least one York program, she added. Brown is involved with the Ontario School Counsellors’ Association and said no one is reporting a drop in interest in York. "Students aren’t talking about it," she added. "But if students came to us, we’d say next year was the perfect time to go. You know all the labour strife is over. It’s probably one of the best places to go."

  • Barbara Skrela is fed up with the standoff and stalled classes created by the ongoing York University strike, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 13 in its Strikeout column, profiling students and others affected by the disruption.   

The third-year chemistry PhD student used her free time yesterday to squeeze in some research at the science lab with master’s student Mileina Jaffer. Skrela said graduate students who serve as teaching assistants could be faced with the uphill task of marking a pile of undergraduate student assignments when the semester eventually resumes after the strike’s resolution.  

"Instead of doing our work, we’re going to spend all our extra time on the weekend marking," Skrela said. "We’re in courses, too, as graduate students, and those have been put on hold."  

Skrela said many graduate students, some of whom are on the picket line, have fallen behind in their coursework, which could affect their grades when evaluations are eventually done at the end of the semester. "The strike is giving the University, on a whole, such a bad reputation."  

The 26-year-old said she earns more than $20,000 per year, which is sufficient to cover her $6,500 in tuition fees. "I understand that we don’t get enough hours, but we’re going to school. The assisting that I’m doing takes up a lot of my time. A little more money would be nice, but we’re here to get a master’s or a PhD. We’re not here to turn over a profit." 

  • Dagmar Kanzler’s patience ran out last week. For 10 weeks, her 19-year-old son’s studies have been idled by a strike at York University, and it suddenly became clear to her that it was never going to be settled, wrote The Globe and Mail’s Murray Campbell in his Jan. 13 column. On Sunday, with her son’s help, she set up a Facebook site and a blog to urge a resolution of the bitter labour dispute involving contract faculty, tutorial assistants and graduate assistants.  

Kanzler is making a few points on behalf of the 50,000 York students whose classes were interrupted 10 weeks ago with no sign yet of when they will resume. She wants classes to resume as quickly as possible and a way found to complete the academic year without extending it to the summer. And, oh, she has something to say to parents who are contemplating sending their children to York. "If I was talking to another parent face-to-face, I would say really think long and hard about York before deciding to send your kid there," she said.

It’s a timely message: Wednesday is the deadline for Grade 12 students in Ontario to submit their enrolment choices for next year. It is also an increasingly common message. There are a number of Facebook sites (in addition to Kanzler’s) that are attracting thousands of supporters by spreading the message that enough is enough. Lyndon Koopmans has attracted more than 4,500 people to sign up to his site with his call to end the strike soon because both York and the Canadian Union of Public Employees have forgotten about students. "We’re being used as bargaining chips here," he said. "Both parties say, ‘We want to get them back in school,’ but they use it as leverage against the other one."

It takes a certain amount of skill to build up this kind of ill will, but York, which was established in the wilds of suburban Toronto 50 years ago, has been equal to the task. It has a strong activist tradition that has often made students the meat in the sandwich. Twice in the past 12 years it has had to lengthen its school year to deal with the effects of a strike.

The current dispute isn’t terribly complicated. York is offering a 9.25 per cent wage increase over three years as well as improved benefits and job security. CUPE has rejected the offer as inadequate and has asked for eight per cent over two years, a crucial demand because it wants its deal to expire in 2010 along with those on many other campuses.

York, which had hoped to establish itself among the front rank of research-based universities, has done (in Kanzler’s words) "a stellar job of damaging its reputation through this." Its new president & vice-chancellor, Mamdouh Shoukri, has been largely invisible, and it has now gambled by asking the Ontario Labour Ministry to supervise a vote on its latest offer, which is likely to be very similar to one that had earlier been rejected by CUPE. This vote – the bargaining equivalent of a Hail Mary pass in football – is unlikely to be held until next week, and it’s not clear what will happen if the union turns down the offer.

As for CUPE, it is enough to note that its Ontario section is run by Sid Ryan, a publicity hound who last week apologized for comparing Israeli bombings of academic institutions in Gaza to actions by Nazis in the Second World War.

There seems to be little concern in the Ontario government that York is crippling itself at a time when the economy needs more "knowledge workers". Universities Minister John Milloy acknowledges the strike is "unfortunate", but says he can’t intervene in the bargaining at an autonomous institution. "There is a process which is unfolding and we’re going to see what happens," he said.

It’s a response that doesn’t please Kanzler’s son, Nicholas Ross. "I speak for a lot of students when I say we’re just fed up with this."  

  • Nicholas Ross and his parents, Dagmar Kanzler and David Ross, talked about starting a Facebook campaign urging students not to attend York, on CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning” Jan. 12. 
  • The York University strike and other Ontario labour disputes were discussed on talk shows on CJBK-AM, London; Citytv’s “Breakfast Television”; and CTV’s “Canada AM” Jan. 12.
  • Joyce Savoline, Conservative education critic, expressed her concerns with the way the Liberal government is handling the York University strike and Elementary Teachers’ Federation negotiations, on the “Jeff Allan Show” on CKGL-AM, Kitchener, Jan. 9. 
  • Alex Bylik, York spokesperson, discussed the strike on CTV and CP24-TV, Jan. 12.  
  • Tyler Shipley, CUPE 3903 spokesperson, discussed the strike on CTV Jan. 12.

Students face fierce competition to get into Ontario’s universities

Ontario’s high school students face fierce competition from a growing pool of applicants boasting ballooning grades as they scramble to meet Wednesday’s crucial deadline for applying to the province’s universities, reported The Canadian Press Jan. 12.

Last year, some 84,000 high school students applied for 64,000 spots at Ontario’s 20 universities. That was a four per cent rise in applications from 2007, and officials expect a similar increase this year. While the Jan. 14 deadline has always caused some to sweat, the swelling numbers of applicants and escalating grade cut-offs are adding extra pressure to today’s postsecondary hopefuls.

Six years ago, application rates in the province skyrocketed to an all-time high when the government eliminated Ontario’s fifth year of high school, reducing the term to four years and creating a double cohort applying for post-secondary education. Some 102,000 students applied to universities in 2003, up from 60,000 in 2001. While the rate initially dropped back in line, it subsequently continued to grow. Even disregarding the double cohort years, the number of applicants increased by more than 42 per cent between 2000 and 2008.

Driving the growth is the ongoing rise in immigration, increasing participation by students whose parents didn’t attend university, and applications from people who have lost jobs or are looking to upgrade their skills during the economic recession.

Tougher competition is also a result of grade inflation, spurred by students’ zealous drive to achieve whatever cut-off grade is listed by a university. Grade cut-offs change every year, and vary for each program in each institution. Last year, most schools made offers to students with minimum grades averaging in the mid-70s or 80s. Several stringent programs made offers only to students whose average grade was in the low to mid-90 range. Those programs included McMaster University’s health sciences, York University’s Schulich School of Business and biotechnology at the University of Waterloo.

Corporate money finances 905 vote, York study shows

Toronto is better than its immediate 905 neighbours in at least one category – election financing, reported The Toronto Sun Jan. 13. A study by the Centre for Social Justice and VoteToronto released yesterday found councillors here are far less dependent on corporate and union election campaign contributions than their suburban colleagues.

"There’s a huge distinction, and I think it partly reflects the City of Toronto’s greater political diversity but also it’s (because) Toronto led a number of campaign finance reforms," said Robert MacDermid, the political science professor in York’s Faculty of Arts who crunched the 2006 municipal election campaign finance figures.

The paper released Monday, which is also available at, is the third such study VoteToronto has undertaken since the 2000 Ontario municipal election. It studied the financial statements filed by all 674 candidates in the 132 municipal races in Toronto, Ajax, Brampton, Markham, Mississauga, Oshawa, Pickering, Richmond Hill, Vaughan and Whitby.

Corporate donations made up 76.7 per cent of candidates’ election finances in Pickering, and 62.8 per cent in Vaughan, but only 12.1 per cent in Toronto.

MacDermid finds the reliance on corporate donations in the 905 is worrisome. "I wouldn’t be here if developers and corporations gave randomly to every political interest," he said. "But the fact is they don’t."

Under the province’s Municipal Elections Act, individuals, corporations and unions can only give $750 to each candidate, except to Toronto’s mayoral candidates who can receive $2,500.

"I am not cynical enough to believe that $750 could buy any politician’s vote, nor do I believe that any developer would be silly enough to think that they could subvert a candidate by making a contribution of $750," MacDermid said. "It’s simple-minded to suggest that $750 is going to affect anybody’s vote, but it’s not so simple-minded to think that the total (corporate contributions) might."

  • York political scientist Robert MacDermid is not suggesting that 905-region politicians are accepting brown-bag bribes, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 13. But his study into campaign donations to councillors in cities that have long embraced urban sprawl opens a window into the world of developer influence: A $750-maximum gift may not change a politician’s mind, he suggests, but huge industry donations can subtly encourage pro-development ways.

"Campaign contributions are a kind of keyhole through which one can look at these larger relationships," MacDermid said. "The whole system then becomes obvious as one that is pushing us toward the same kind of development, over and over again."

Most of the developers donating in the 905 regions outside Toronto are in the business of building subdivisions, MacDermid said. Sprawling communities of virtually identical brick houses emerged after the Second World War as a popular planning style, and in Greater Toronto that development has continued unchecked for decades, eating into rich farmland and creating dependence on the automobile.

For more than half a century, environmentalists and progressive urban planners have warned that the environment could not sustain unbridled construction, yet the regions continued to build communities dominated by single-family homes instead of the denser development common in Toronto.

  • It would be nice to report that VoteToronto, a watchdog group devoted to financial analysis of municipal election campaigns in the region, had something new to say with its latest report on the most recent campaigns, began The Globe and Mail’s John Barber in his Jan. 13 column. But everybody already knows that developers and their colleagues exert enormous, undue influence over suburban councils. Out there, nothing has changed.

And who cares? Every new story of civic turpitude out of Vaughan, the "city above Toronto", suggests that suburban politics in the Toronto area is just a third-rate sideshow of no import.

But intriguing details in the latest VoteToronto analysis argue otherwise. When it comes to minting fortunes for a familiar clientele, they show, Vaughan council is anything but dysfunctional. For the 2006 iteration of what has become a long series of papers on developer contributions to municipal councils, Robert MacDermid, a political science professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, went a step further by looking at what the contributions might actually buy, using Vaughan as the model.

MacDermid’s earlier research has already revealed how developer contributions cluster in the campaigns of favoured candidates, giving them a formidable advantage over non-favoured candidates. The unanswered question is what happens next. In between staging vaudevillian scandals, what Vaughan does a lot is to consider requests for rezonings and amendments to its official plan, deceptively banal changes that have the potential to massively increase the value of the property in question. MacDermid found 78 of the top 100 corporate contributors to municipal campaigns were represented among the supplicants in Vaughan between 2001 and 2008. "How did the Vaughan councillors vote on the applications of those developers that financed their campaigns?" he asks. "The short answer is that they passed almost all of them."

But the detail that really gives the game away is the astonishing fact that there is no actual record of the votes council took to approve 35 of the 40 applications for official plan amendments between 2004 and 2006. Not one Vaughan councillor ever made the simple, routine request for the "yeas" and "nays" to be recorded. All we know from the minutes was that there were almost always more of the former than the latter.

City of Toronto politicians, led by serious mayoral candidates, have done a decent job of weaning themselves off corporate cash since the freewheeling days of mayor Mel Lastman. In any case, they wouldn’t fill a pothole without demanding the necessary vote be recorded. Not even the foxiest survivor has dared dream of trying to replicate something like the don’t-ask, don’t-tell arrangement that rules Vaughan. They know they wouldn’t survive if they tried. But in Vaughan – and other suburban municipalities, according to MacDermid – such tricks are the very key to survival. Nothing changes.  

  • There are stark differences in how Toronto and surrounding municipalities fund elections – starting with the rate of corporate and union donations, reported the National Post Jan. 13. A study by York political science Professor Robert MacDermid for VoteToronto, a non-partisan pro-democracy group, looked at $10 million of donations to 674 candidates in 10 municipalities – Toronto, Ajax, Brampton, Markham, Mississauga, Oshawa, Pickering, Richmond Hill, Vaughan and Whitby – during the 2006 campaign. The National Post‘s Allison Hanes extracts five things you should know from the report.:

1. Pickering registered the highest rate of corporate donations, with 77 per cent of the $236,000 raised during the last election, followed by Vaughan with 63 per cent, Richmond Hill with 62 per cent and Brampton at 57 per cent. In contrast, 12 per cent of $5.4 million raised in Toronto for the last campaign came from the corporate sector. Region-wide, about a third of campaign funds came from business donors.  

2. In Toronto, about 20 per cent of council members already personally rejected corporate and union campaign contributions in 2006, including Mayor David Miller. He was joined by councillors Cliff Jenkins (Don Valley West), Michael Walker (St. Paul’s), Adam Vaughan (Trinity-Spadina), Karen Stintz (Eglinton-Lawrence), Pam McConnell (Toronto Centre-Rosedale), Kyle Rae (Toronto Centre-Rosedale), Joe Mihevc (St. Paul’s), Joe Pantalone (Trinity-Spadina) and Chin Lee (Scarborough-Rouge River).  

3. The study found the vast majority of corporate donations came from developers or companies with a stake in the building and construction industry. For example, 57 per cent of corporate donations in Vaughan and 56 per cent in Pickering came from development-related industries. MacDermid said the argument for outlawing corporate donations is that one change to zoning or the official plan in their favour can generate millions of dollars for a development project. While he believes it is legitimate for union leaders, corporate executives and developers as individuals to pledge funds to a campaign, he said fundraising limits are often thwarted when companies make multiple donations to campaigns through various subsidiaries and entities, which are often numbered.  

4. Many people believe that if corporate donations should be limited, so should contributions from unions. But the TorontoVotes study found union funding is minuscule – even by comparison to candidates financing their own campaigns. For instance GTA-wide, 1.4 per cent of money raised came from unions, while 19 per cent came out of candidates’ own pockets. In Toronto, union donations comprised 2.2 per cent of total fundraising.  

5. Toronto’s executive committee last week took the first steps toward an institutional ban on corporate and union campaign donations. City council will consider the question in September. The city is the only municipality in Ontario that has the power to make this decision; the province determines election financing rules for the 905 region. Quebec has had similar restrictions on who can fund campaigns across the province for decades now.  

  • Robert MacDermid, a political science professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, talked about how reliance on developers and corporate contributions to election campaigns in the 905 region is harming democracy, based on his most recent study of election financing, on Rogers TV’s “Goldhawk Live”, CBC Radio’s “Ontario Today” and “Here & Now” Jan. 12. The study’s findings were also reported on OMNI.2, CFMT-TV and CP24-TV.

Democratizing the corporation

James Gillies [professor emeritus in York’s Schulich School of Business] is a formidable and original thinker. As much as there is so much right about his diagnosis of the failings of our present corporate governance regime, outlined in detail in these pages on Dec. 23, 2008 ("From FDR’s New Deal to the new corporation"), there is also so much that is wrong with his recommended reforms, wrote Allan Hutchinson, distinguished research professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, in a National Post opinion piece Jan. 13.

He is right about the failure of the present model of corporate governance. Mindful of the enormous social power of mega-corporations, he highlights the myth of shareholder control and the woeful record of boards of directors in rendering corporate power accountable. Furthermore, in recommending the abolition of common shares and the board as currently constituted, he is on to something.

But his suggestion to leave control – and, therefore, accountability – with corporations’ original owners and charterers is well wide of the mark. Now is not the time to strip back any independent or external controls on capital and corporations, but an opportunity to introduce a very different model of corporate governance. Instead of modelling corporate control on a discredited notion of private ownership, it is preferable to place democratic authority at its core.

Lawyers challenge new drink-drive rules

New drinking and driving laws enacted this past summer as part of the Tories’ Tackling Violent Crime Act are creating "mayhem" and "chaos", two Toronto lawyers who are challenging the legislation say, reported The Toronto Sun Jan. 13.

At issue for Alan Young, a professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, and Joseph Neuberger – who are together representing three men accused of impaired driving – is that the new rules force judges to rely exclusively on breathalyzer test results, which fails to protect innocent people from malfunctioning equipment.

The only way breathalyzer results can be thrown out is if the accused can provide evidence that the machine malfunctioned, something Young calls "an impossibility" because the machine is always with the authorities.

In what was commonly called the "two-beer defence" someone who blew over the legal limit of 0.08 milligrams of alcohol but didn’t think they had drunk enough to be legally impaired could challenge breathalyzer results in court. A toxicologist would be used to assess what their alcohol level would have been at the time of the test.

Also at issue is that lower courts across the country can’t decide whether the law applies retroactively or not and are handing out rulings to people whose impaired driving charges predate July 2, 2008, when the legislation came into effect.

Neuberger and Young are hoping Ontario superior court Justice Ian MacDonnell will agree to hear their legal challenge. MacDonnell said he will rule on whether he will hear the case later this week.

  • Alan Young, a professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, says new drinking and driving legislation is unconstitutional, reported CKLQ-AM, Brandon, Man., Jan. 12.

On air

  • Stanislav Kirschbaum, a professor of international studies at York’s Glendon College, discussed the Israeli assault on the Hamas in Gaza, on TFO-TV’s “Panorama” Jan. 12.