High-school applicants shun York as strike drags on

York University is considering cutting the size of next year’s freshman class because of the sharp decline in applications for next September, the latest fallout from the strike that has cancelled most classes for 50,000 students since early November, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 20.

Robert Tiffin, York’s vice-president of students, said the move may be necessary in order to maintain standards. The alternative would be to lower the required marks for incoming students.

The number of high-school students selecting York as their first choice for university fell by close to 15 per cent this year. The drop comes at a time when several other campuses in the Toronto area are experiencing double-digit increases in applications. A move by York to reduce numbers in its incoming class would increase the competition for freshman spots across the Toronto region, an area of the country where demand for undergraduate spaces is increasing.

“Given the dramatic decline, I think there is no question we will be looking at decreasing our intake,” Tiffin said. “It is going to be a rebuilding process once the strike ends.”

York, which traditionally receives the second highest number of first-year applications in the province, behind the University of Toronto, dropped this year to fourth place behind Ryerson University and the University of Western Ontario, numbers released yesterday from the province’s application centre show.

Tiffin attributed the decline to the lengthy strike by the University’s teaching assistants and contract faculty.

Tiffin said a decision on the size of the incoming class will be made next month when demand from mature applicants and transfer students is clear.

Once the labour dispute is settled, efforts will be made to reach out to students who have expressed interest in York, including offers of financial support, Tiffin said. Work will also be required, he said, to retain current students.

  • If the vote by striking York University teaching assistants and contract faculty fails, the province should move in with back-to-work legislation to get 50,000 students back to class by next week, Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory said yesterday, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 20.

“Let’s hope the vote goes well but, if not, McGuinty needs to call the legislature back and pass legislation to have classes going again no later than Monday,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday after meeting with a small group of York students about the strike, now in its 11th week. “I feel very strongly that this can’t go on, and enough is enough. Let’s use the legislation for what it’s there for, to protect the interests of students and families affected by this.”

The union’s key demand is job security for contract faculty. It remains confident the offer will be rejected. “It doesn’t really address the key priorities we’ve been fighting for,” union spokesperson Tyler Shipley said. “We’re not asking people (after they vote), but we do know there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with what the University has put forward.”

In Waterloo yesterday, Premier Dalton McGuinty said he wouldn’t speculate on the outcome of the contract vote and remained “hopeful” the dispute would be resolved. He would not commit to back-to-work legislation if it continues. “It’s in the hands of the parties right now, and that’s where it should be,” McGuinty said. “I’m very concerned about the length of time that’s been involved, very concerned about the impact it’s having on students’ studies.”

Tory said it might be time to institute an arm’s-length university relations commission that would monitor strikes and notify the government when the academic year is in jeopardy. Such a body exists for public schools, and up until last fall there was a college relations commission. “If the vote goes negative, the government has to act,” Tory said.

The province has intervened at least twice in college strikes, in 1984 and 1989, but is not believed to have done so at a university.

  • CUPE Local 3903 members flooded into the Novotel Hotel near Toronto’s Mel Lastman Square yesterday to cast their ballots in a forced vote on York University’s latest contract offer, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 20.

With an impromptu CUPE choir belting out odes to the union in the lobby and other members fanned out in the area to sway undecided voters, there was a lively atmosphere on the first of two days of balloting. Both CUPE and York officials said turnout appeared high.

“We’re confident that our members will reject this offer,” union spokesperson Tyler Shipley said. If so, “the pressure would finally be on the University to sit at the bargaining table,” he added.

Some CUPE members echoed that sentiment. “Voting no will bring it to the end probably just as quickly as a yes vote and will get us a far better deal,” said CUPE member Peter Trainor, 26.

But York rebuffed the idea that it would be forced back to the bargaining table. “We have put a settlement offer forward that in these deteriorating economic times is very generous,” said Alex Bilyk, York’s director of media relations. He added that he believed the offer might be accepted by a “silent majority” of CUPE members and urged “all employees to come out and vote” in the second round of voting today.

Some who shared that sentiment weren’t so silent yesterday. “Once January rolled around, I just thought this is enough,” said Lisa Hopkins, a union member who voted to accept the University’s offer. “I think that it’s time to go back…. I’ve been a supporter from the beginning but, now, it’s just affecting too many people’s lives.”

Others agreed. “This has gone on too long,” doctoral student Barbara Skrela, 26, said of the strike that began on Nov. 6. “This is actually the first time that I’m voting, unfortunately. I know that a lot of people who are against the strike are coming out today,” she said.

Voting by paper ballot, conducted by the Ontario Labour Relations Board, continues today until 7pm. Results are expected to follow within hours.

  • York University’s 50,000 students waited for word on whether they can return to classes today while PC leader John Tory said he’ll push for back-to-work legislation if York’s striking staff reject the latest contract offer, wrote The Toronto Sun Jan. 20.

“We hope the union will vote to accept the offer. That would be the best resolution to this so classes could resume before Monday,” Tory said after he spoke with concerned students on campus yesterday.

If the proposed settlement is turned down, Tory said, he’ll press Premier Dalton McGuinty to recall the provincial legislature to pass back-to-work legislation.

“Enough is enough,” Tory said. “It should be back mid-week this week. The law should be passed ordering the strike be put to an end so classes will be resumed on Monday – not a minute later, preferably earlier.”

The governing Liberals and the New Democrats were reluctant to comment about back-to-work legislation in order to respect the collective bargaining process, but McGuinty said he’s hopeful both sides will settle their contract dispute soon.

“I’m very concerned about the length that’s been involved,” the premier said. “I’m very concerned about the impact it’s having on students’ studies. So, I remain hopeful that people will – all the folks involved on both sides of this difficult issue – will understand that there’s nothing more important than ensuring that young people are in their classes.”

On-campus food vendors were hurting from this walkout. “We had to lay off five full-time employees,” said Jimmy the Greek owner, George, who didn’t want to give his last name. “Rent is $10,000 a month. We have to look out for our overhead costs,” he said. “We probably won’t recover until next year.”

At the neighbouring York Lanes, business owners were reluctant to discuss the impact of the strike. “Everyone’s leases are up soon so they are keeping quiet,” said one vendor.

  • Premier Dalton McGuinty said Monday he isn’t ready to call back the legislature to force an end to the York University strike, and he wants to see the result of a two-day vote before considering any action, wrote The Canadian Press Jan. 19.

“It’s in the hands of the parties right now, and that’s where it should be,” McGuinty said after making a health-care funding announcement. “There’s an opportunity today and tomorrow to bring it to an end.”

McGuinty declined to say whether he thought the months-long situation had reached a breaking point, but suggested a resolution is overdue. “I am very concerned about the length of time that’s been involved, very concerned about the impact it’s had on students’ studies,” McGuinty said.

“I remain hopeful that during the course of today and tomorrow, all the folks involved on both sides of this difficult issue will understand that there’s nothing more important than ensuring that young people are in the classes.”

Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory said that while he also hopes Monday’s and Tuesday’s vote will resolve the impasse, McGuinty should take action to bring classes back.

“McGuinty should make it clear – and do it now – classes will be resuming at York University not later than Monday,” Tory said. “And if he has to recall the legislature to make that happen, he’ll do it. I think that might have a positive outcome on the vote.”

A spokesperson for the New Democrats declined to comment on whether the party would support bringing back the legislature to force the issue, saying it wouldn’t be helpful to hypothesize while the vote was taking place.

  • We hope 3,400 striking contract faculty and teaching and graduate assistants at York University accept its latest offer in voting which concludes today. But if they don’t, Premier Dalton McGuinty must immediately recall the legislature and end this strike, now in its 11th week, through back-to-work legislation and binding arbitration, wrote The Toronto Sun Jan. 20 in an editorial.

As Conservative Leader John Tory said yesterday in urging a recall of the legislature if necessary, enough is enough. It is unconscionable 50,000 innocent students have been held hostage since Nov. 6, costing them millions of dollars in tuition and living expenses for a promised education they have not received.

Labour-management relations at York are dysfunctional. This is its second, paralyzing, 11-week strike in eight years. Even if the workers accept York’s offer today, McGuinty allowed this strike to drag on far too long. If they don’t, he must recall the legislature from its (insert laughter here) “Christmas break” and end this deadlock now.

  • Tough economic times are behind a dramatic increase in the number of people hoping to land a coveted spot in an Ontario college or university, the organizations that track applications said Monday, wrote The Canadian Press Jan. 19.

While the number of high-school students applying to university was up a modest 1.1 per cent over last year to 84,300 – still record-setting territory – there was a 10 per cent jump in the number of non-high-school applicants, the Council of Ontario Universities reported.

Several stringent programs made offers only to students whose average grade was in the low to mid-90 range. Those programs included York University’s Schulich School of Business.

  • Demand for university spots in Ontario is increasing, driven by applications to Toronto campuses and interest from mature and returning students looking to go back to class in the face of grim financial news, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 20.

Yesterday’s news was better for some universities than for others. The numbers show a wide variation in interest across the province, with double-digit increases at most Toronto campuses and a drop in applications to schools in other regions of the province. It’s a trend that has been growing for several years and is likely to make it more difficult to gain a spot at universities in the country’s largest city.

The only exception to this Toronto trend was York University, which is in the grip of a two-month-old strike, and experienced a drop in applications of 15 per cent.

  • Record numbers of Ontario high-school students have applied to university according to data released yesterday, wrote the Ottawa Citizen Jan. 20. This year in Ontario there has also been a significant increase in the number of applicants no longer in high school, including former high school students, mature, transfer and out-of-province students. Applications from this group jumped almost 10 per cent to 21,128.

York University, where teaching assistants have been on strike since Nov. 6, had a significant drop in applications – 14.7 per cent fewer high-school students chose York first.

  • For some York University students the ongoing strike is not all doom and gloom, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 20.

Sky Fairchild-Waller, 21, a fourth-year dance student, said the lockout has allowed him to devote time to other ventures. He has used the free time to try to pick up dance performance jobs to keep himself financially afloat. “The strike is really bittersweet,” he said. “It costs money to live day-to-day in a huge metropolitan city like Toronto. Time is money, and students do not have a surplus of that.”

The extra work paid off when the performer and choreographer landed a performing role in the stage version of the hit movie High School Musical 2, which will make its Canadian debut at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in March.

“That’s not something that I would normally be able to say yes to if I was a full-time student,” he said. “So I’m broadening my ability to take on new things because I’m sitting on dozens of hours of free time.”

Laura Kelly, 24, a fourth-year music student, has used the free time to fine-tune her vocals for her performance at the formal dinner for the Order of Ontario this weekend. “I’m busy with a lot of stuff outside of school, performance-wise,” Kelly said. “My only concern is graduating, because I’ve applied to graduate school for opera performance.”

The classical vocal performer said her relaxed mood will turn to “full-blown panic” if York’s contract faculty and teaching assistants don’t vote for the latest deal offered by the school, with the voting scheduled to end today. Kelly isn’t sure how much longer she can survive without formal lessons. “I have auditions for grad school in February,” she said, “and I haven’t had formal lessons since November.”

  • The York University Faculty Association executive, not its members, expressed support for striking co-workers, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 20 in a correction. Unclear information appeared on Saturday.

A number of members of the York community spoke on radio and television Jan. 19:

  • Tyler Shipley, spokesperson for CUPE 3903, spoke about the strike on 680News and CBC Radio Jan. 19. Shipley and Alex Bilyk, York’s director of media relations, spoke about the strike on CP24-TV. Bilyk and teaching assistant Mike Yam spoke on CBC-TV. Bilyk and student Marisol Fornoni spoke on CFMT-TV.
  • John Lennox, professor in York’s Faculty of Arts; Dennis Raphael, professor in York’s Faculty of Health; teaching assistant Gary Romanuk; and student Lynden Koopmans, co-founder of YorkNotHostage.com, spoke about the strike on CBC Radio. Koopmans also spoke on CFTO-TV and CP24-TV.
  • Christina Rousseau, chair of CUPE 3903, spoke about the strike on Global TV.
  • Students Kelvin Ng and Christina Chewchuk spoke about the strike on CityTV.
  • Media relations director Alex Bilyk and student Clowie Chung spoke on OMNI-TV.

York student’s death in hockey fight noted by The New York Times

As a rookie defenceman for the Whitby Dunlops, a storied amateur hockey team in this Toronto suburb, former York student Donald Sanderson impressed his teammates as a passionate and intense competitor, wrote The New York Times Jan. 20.

Although in many ways, the accident appeared to be a fluke – Sanderson’s helmet became dislodged during the scuffle and the players fell to the ice together – his death has led to headlines across Canada and revived a longstanding debate over what role, if any, fighting should play in hockey.

Last week the junior Ontario Hockey League, a spawning ground for the NHL, stiffened its rules, ordering one-game suspensions for players who remove their helmets before fights. “It’s a tragedy involving our sport,” said Bill Daly, the deputy commissioner of the NHL. He said Sanderson’s death – and whether it should lead to rule changes in professional hockey – would probably be discussed at the league’s meeting of general managers in March. “Whenever you have something like that, it causes reflection,” Daly said.

For all the talk of fighting that his death has generated, family and friends said Sanderson was nothing like the stereotype of a brutish enforcer. They described him as a polite, sensitive, intellectually curious young man off the ice. Although he had once dreamed of being drafted by an NHL team, he had recently decided to become a teacher and a coach, and was studying kinesiology at York University’s [Faculty of Health]. He also helped his father coach the Belleville Bearcats, a travelling hockey team of girls of high school age.

Quest for a happy family; tragic – and funny – tale is set in Ottawa

Priscila Uppal has been compared to Margaret Atwood, and, insofar as one can measure a 34-year-old sophomore novelist against an international literary doyenne, their careers have been eerily similar, even interrelated, wrote The Gazette (Montreal) Jan. 17 in a review.

Like Atwood, Uppal, the Ottawa-born daughter of a Sikh Indian father and a Brazilian mother, is a prolific poet, whose reputation was established well before she hit 30. Her fifth and most recent collection was shortlisted for the Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize. This award, which is famous throughout the world of English verse for its unusually rich $50,000 value, is administered by a trust that counts Atwood as a founding member.

Uppal also rivals Atwood in editorial experience. She has several collections to her credit, including a tribute to the life of another very ambitious Canadian writer, Matt Cohen, who produced more than 20 books before dying in 1999, at 56. That anthology features contributions from various CanLit luminaries, like Alice Munro, like Atwood.

Uppal, who is a professor of English and humanities at York University (where Atwood taught briefly in the ’70s), boasts a CV that would be impressive for a writer 10, 20, 30 years her senior. Her latest novel, To Whom it May Concern, offers some insight into this drive.

  • Should Hockey Canada ever decide to employ an official poet laureate to compose rhapsodic odes to our national pastime, Priscila Uppal would have to rank high on any list of potential candidates, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 17.

As the author of five poetry collections, including the Griffin Poetry Prize- nominated Ontological Necessities, Uppal’s credentials as a versifier are impressive. Her bona fides as a hockey fan are equally unassailable.

Sitting down in a Toronto coffee shop to discuss her second novel, To Whom It May Concern, the 34-year-old writer’s voice is still slightly ragged from having shouted herself hoarse during the recent World Junior Hockey Championships in her native Ottawa. During an 11-day stretch, Uppal attended 19 games, including all five Canada matches.

“I have to say that the (semifinal) game between Canada and Russia was probably the most exciting hockey game I’ve ever seen,” says Uppal. “It was a phenomenal game. The place just exploded. Of course, the final was tons of fun, too, because of the energy.”

Uppal, who lives in Toronto and teaches in York University’s Faculty of Arts, attended the games with her partner, as well as her brother and his wife. She occasionally returns to Ottawa to take in Senators games with her brother, who has ice-level season tickets.

Uppal is on sabbatical from York this year, so the ongoing labour dispute at the University hasn’t disrupted her routine. McGill-Queen’s University Press is this month publishing her PhD dissertation, We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy. Beyond that, Uppal continues to write poetry and has also finished a play.

  • Like Shakespeare, Ottawa author Priscila Uppal has written a funny, tender tragicomedy about communication, the lack of it, and how families can go completely awry, wrote the Edmonton Journal Jan. 18.

In memory fragments, pictorials, letters, journal entries, photographs and straightforward scene construction, To Whom It May Concern addresses the fact that the whole is made up of the sum of its parts.

In fact, the composition of families – which is the construct at the heart of this fiction – initially seems as random and seemingly mismatched as Uppal’s various methods of storytelling. And yet when one closes the covers of this book, there is a distinct awareness that family life in all its misshapen glory has not only been revealed by the author, but also experienced by the reader.

It’s a rare feat, and Uppal, a poet, novelist and English professor at Toronto’s York University, has succeeded in writing a compelling and complete story about family of origin and family of choice. She explores the similarities and differences of each, and ultimately shows how families can be destructive, instructive and, ultimately, for those who want, reconstructed. In what at first appears to be a piecemeal approach, Uppal allows the reader brief and often fleeting glimpses into the lives of four members of the Dange family.

How to rate the Bush years? (Seriously)

Outgoing President George W. Bush thinks history will be kinder to him than contemporary “writers and opiners” (and shoe-throwers) believe, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 17.

Which is, simply, that with the invasion of Iraq, Bush directed the biggest foreign policy disaster in recent US history. Is that the case for the entire Bush administration, at home and abroad? We asked eight political analysts of varying political hues on both sides of the border for their best and worst of the Bush years.

Stephen Newman, US-born political scientist in York’s Faculty of Arts: “Bush expanded the executive powers of the president in an incredible assertion of power. He attached ‘signing statements’ to something like 1,000 bills instead of just signing them as constitutionally required.”

It meant that Bush set aside statutes passed by Congress that conflicted with his interpretation of the Constitution. Among them: rules regarding habeas corpus, affirmative-action provisions, whistle-blower protections for nuclear regulatory officials, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.

“After 9-11, he and (Vice-President) Dick Cheney reconceived the president as an absolute monarch. It sets dangerous precedents for the future, though the courts will have the last word.”

On air

  • York student Alistair Woods spoke about whether Ontario public school teachers should be allowed to strike on CP24-TV Jan. 19.