York leads – and saves – with its ‘green’ projects

A green wave is sweeping over Toronto’s academic institutions, as staff, students and faculty collaborate on sustainability projects that could inspire a sea change across Canadian society, reported the Toronto Star Feb. 4.

Bike co-ops, compost and recycling programs, rooftop gardens and solar panels are becoming increasingly visible on university and college campuses. Peel back a layer: Replacing aging furnaces with state-of-the-art HVAC systems, installing better insulation and replacing incandescent lights are saving schools millions of dollars while cutting energy consumption.

York University, for example, saved $2.7 million in 2008 with energy-efficient improvements and expects to boost that savings to $5 million a year by 2011. Ryerson University estimates it has saved $15 million over the past 17 years thanks to sustainability and conservation initiatives.

But the changes on campus are driven by more than just a desire to save money. Shareholder obligations may play a big role in driving the business world, but academic institutions — often with substantially smaller budgets — are also driven by the research, activism and idealism of their students, faculty and staff.

Whether a sustainable project works on campus can be a litmus test for how it will fare in the "real world", says Dawn Bazely, director of York University’s Institute for Research & Innovation in Sustainability. "Sustainability has to start at universities, where you’ve got people absorbed in issues, thinking critically and engaging in dialogue," says Bazely, an ecologist by training. "If you can’t do it at universities, many of which are the size of small cities, how are we going to do this on a large scale?"

  • All university courses require paper — usually, lots of it, reported the Star Feb. 4. That reality prompted Steve Glassman, director of York University’s bookstores, printing & mail services, and his colleague, Dawn Bazely of York’s Institute for Research & Innovation in Sustainability, to figure out a way to reduce the environmental impact of the hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper used by the school each year.  

The solution? York is now the first Canadian postsecondary institution to make its student course packs carbon-neutral. For every course pack created — currently more than 2,000 a year — the school contributes 10 cents to Zerofootprint, a Toronto-based non-profit that supports forest maintenance and purchases local renewable energy.

"The impact is still there," acknowledges Glassman, but "it’s leadership and it’s symbolic. Dawn and I would love to see the day when we become a zero-impact, carbon-neutral campus."

Councillors pave way for development, and lash out at prof’s study

Vaughan council has voted to change the designation of a swath of rural land, paving the way for a massive residential development near Kleinburg despite concerns by the province and a residents’ group that could land the matter at the Ontario Municipal Board, reported the Toronto Star Feb. 4.

The vote, an important first step toward building the Nashville Heights neighbourhood — some 3,000 homes on about 185 hectares — comes despite concerns the land is part of the area undergoing environmental assessment for a future extension of Highway 427 and east-west highway options.

Tuesday’s vote followed a series of speeches by councillors and Mayor Linda Jackson, who insisted any suggestion they were going out of their way to accommodate developer Sylvio DeGasperis and a group of landowners was unfounded.

The councillors lashed out at a Saturday Toronto Star story, which they said left the impression local taxpayers would be on the hook for costly road realignments to accommodate the development.

Tony Carella was among several councillors at the meeting who took umbrage at a study by York University Professor Robert MacDermid, also reported in the Star, that examined developers’ contributions to municipal campaigns. MacDermid noted that of about 40 applications for official plan amendments in Vaughan over two years, 35 were approved without a recorded vote.

"It is being suggested by this academic and local papers that all we do is bend over and approve these things," Carella said angrily, adding that when conflicts arise with developers, he sides with residents first. He called it a logical fallacy that just because a developer contributed to his campaign it meant he was influenced by them, adding that development is driven by the arrival of thousands of newcomers to the GTA, and that council both accepts and rejects applications.

  • Over the past 20 years I have lived in Unionville, there has always been debate about bizarre development approvals and their possible connection to political donations from developers. Now, for the first time, you have raised this issue in print based upon the recent analysis by Robert MacDermid, associate professor of political science in York’s Faculty of Arts, wrote Richard Talbot, president, Unionville Ratepayers Association, in a Jan. 31 letter in Markham Economist & Sun.

I found his findings truly shocking. However, what particularly intrigued me was MacDermid’s analysis results have prompted Toronto to consider prohibiting developer donations for the 2010 election and whether we could also do the same in Markham. The Unionville Ratepayers Association has invited MacDermid to speak at its meeting Feb. 2 to present his 2006 election findings (with a particular focus on Markham) and to advise us on the potential to prohibit developer donations in Markham for the 2010 election.

History may not be good indicator of market recovery

Although history says equity markets can often be counted on to come roaring back with a vengeance after a crash, past performance is cold comfort to many nervous RRSP investors who, having just witnessed the carnage of late 2008, are wondering if markets like the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) are going to flirt with previous peaks any time soon, reported Canwest News Service Feb. 4. 

Looking only at history might provide “a fairly distorted picture of what the future will bring,” suggests Moshe Milevsky, a professor of finance at York University’s Schulich School of Business. The market meltdown over the past six months suggests the odds of recovery within a certain time period “may not be as good as we thought they were in the past,” he says. Consequently investors with “a certain amount of risk aversion” may want to consider holding fewer equities than they’ve held in the past, he says.

“When we look at the micro-market; the companies that no longer exist; the credit that has dried up; the intensity of the financial statistics and how they’ve dropped — the depth of this crisis does look a little bit different (compared) to previous crises we’ve had,” Milevsky notes.

Morton: Why Omar Khadr must be set free

Whatever happens in the matter of Omar Khadr when President Barack Obama makes his working visit to Ottawa on Feb. 19, there seems little doubt that the young Canadian, the last westerner in the American military prison in Guantanamo Bay, will soon be coming back to Canada, wrote Toronto lawyer James Morton, adjunct professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, in an opinion piece published Feb. 2 in the Ottawa Citizen and Feb. 4 in the Vancouver Province. If Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn’t ask for Khadr’s return, as he has so far refused to do, the new US administration might simply put him on a plane with a one-way ticket to Toronto.

In which case, the next question becomes: What to do with him? If we are who we say we are, there is only one answer – we release him, cut him loose.

Thousands protest Tamil ‘genocide’

Sharanya Mohan looked back and forth on Front Street. As far as she could see, Tamils stood shoulder to shoulder denouncing what they call genocide in Sri Lanka, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 31. "We can’t all be terrorists," the 21-year-old York University student said with a twisted smile.

Veils and justice

Ontario Court Justice Norris Weisman’s "admittedly difficult decision" to force a complainant to testify without her niqab, or face covering, in a sexual assault case has unleashed a torrent of discussion and debate. Again, the usual suspects with too little knowledge, appreciation or understanding of the complexities of the issue have jumped into the fray, wrote Faisal Kutty, general counsel for the Canadian Muslim Civil Liberties Association and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University, in an opinion piece published Feb. 4 in the Toronto Star

The ruling once again brings to the fore questions surrounding the limits of accommodation in a liberal multicultural society. But this time, in a novel twist, the clash pits a person’s religious right with the right of a defendant in a criminal trial to due process and procedural fairness; namely that of being able to face his or her accuser in open court. Obviously, both are important rights in a liberal democracy. 

The niqab – which a small fraction of orthodox Muslim women use to cover their faces, and not to be confused with the hijab or head covering – is attacked by some as a symbol of oppression. By others as a badge of political Islam. By others as a public-relations nightmare for their "moderate" or more palatable versions of Islam. By others as something that should be compromised in the two-way dance of accommodation. And still by others as not compulsory or even totally unnecessary from a strict Islamic legal point of view. 

All of these people miss the point though, and there is a need to think through the issue in a more holistic manner. The question of the niqab in court must be tackled without resorting to fear and reductionism.

Father in Priscila Uppal’s novel is a tragicomic Lear

Hardev Dange is a tragic figure. He is also a comical figure. But one can only laugh guiltily, writes the Ottawa Citizen reviewer Feb. 1 of the lead character in Priscila Uppal‘s new novel, To Whom It May Concern.

Once a foreign aid worker with the Canadian International Development Agency, Dange now is stuck in a wheelchair because of an industrial accident. He and his wife have parted. His children are increasingly unreliable and distant. His trusty home-care worker has disappeared. And the bank is about to seize his Ottawa house, causing Hardev to place treasured keepsakes on EBay.

Such events sound more Dickensian than funny. But the anonymous narrator makes them funny. Dange also tries to keep us amused, with little jokes and asides, in his struggle to maintain his house, family and dignity while the world collapses around him.

Despite some melodramatic soap-opera leanings, Uppal’s novel does not pander to lightweight sitcom tastes. The author is a Toronto-based, York University literature professor, much acclaimed poet and prolific author originally from Ottawa. She is fond of Shakespeare and Cervantes, teaching an entire class on just the character Don Quixote.

Uppal is a deep thinker, capable of carefully peeling back layer upon layer of the human psyche. She is also a firm believer in looking for the humour in a situation. "I know so many families that have tragedy in them, my own included, and yet they always manage to find some kind of irony in it or humour or, just in order to survive, have to find things that are absurd or make you think life is a little crazy," Uppal said in a recent interview. "What the fates have in store for us is laughable as well as it makes you want to cry, too."

Uppal’s second novel began for her with the creation of the character of Hardev Dange, a man inspired by the author’s father, Avtar, a quadriplegic and a single parent. The book is, in fact, dedicated to her father. Both Uppal’s father and Hardev Dange are Canadians of South Asian origin. And both found themselves disabled with a family to nurture. And that may be the extent of the similarities.

"However, there is no way I could have written this character if I hadn’t lived with my father and known my father," Uppal says. To Whom It May Concern "is actually my version of King Lear," Uppal declares.

York students head back to class

Signs of life returned to York University as students returned to class Monday with the end of the three-month strike by the union representing teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants, reported the North York Mirror Feb. 3. The story is like many others that have appeared since the Ontario government voted striking members of CUPE 3903 back to work Jan. 29.

Most students were glad to be back. "I was really happy," said Hassan Hashmi, a first-year kinesiology student, who didn’t want to waste any more of his summer vacation time. He took the three months off school to catch up with some of the school work assigned before the strike began Nov. 6. "I’m almost up to date," Hashmi said.

But other students like Seungjae Lee are facing bigger problems. "As an international student, time is money," said Lee, explaining he must pay more money for housing accommodations and other living expenses since he must now stay in Canada longer to finish the school year. His usual summer plans, which include going back to Korea to visit his parents for two months, also had to be cancelled. "I lost that time," Lee said. "Everything is delayed. Everything is messed up."

A petition by the York student government is asking the administration to refund 12 per cent of the tuition fee paid by students for the lost time. "Students feel that they deserve some kind of compensation," said Krisna Saravanamuttu, vice-president of equity with the York Federation of Students. He explained the 12 per cent would cover the three weeks lost as a result of the strike out of the 25 weeks of school that students already paid for and expected to receive when they paid their tuition. Saravanamuttu said about 4,000 students have already signed the petition before classes even resumed last week and he expected thousands more to sign before YFS submits the sheets to the administration in a couple of weeks.

But the University has stated it would not issue a refund. "Education is not a commodity," said Alex Bilyk, University spokesperson. "We are delivering the courses the students are here for." He noted most of the time would be made up with the exam schedule shortened to 11 days, reading week cancelled and the school year extended into June. The summer term has not been cancelled either, which will be starting June 8, Bilyk added.

  • Premier Dalton McGuinty’s back-to-work legislation passed last week to end the York University strike is disturbing, wrote Robert Washburn in the Cobourg Daily Star Feb. 4. It undermines the collective bargaining process and sends a message to employers across the province that the collective bargaining process is a joke.
  • Now that we finally have a resolution to the York University strike, we are faced with the possibility that the elementary teachers federation may strike, wrote Bruce Forsyth in a Feb. 4 letter to The Toronto Sun. We don’t need another education strike. Teaching in public educational institutions should be deemed an essential service and strikes should be prohibited.
  • This past week of unscheduled debate in the Ontario legislature marks the final chapter in a sad story that saw a reluctant government finally put an end to the victimization of some 50,000 York University students — students being denied their right to an education for which they worked hard and paid heavily, wrote Tory MPP Toby Barrett (Haldimand-Norfolk) in an opinion piece published Feb. 4 in the Simcoe Reformer.
    Mismanagement first made the students pawns in the dispute between York University and CUPE 3903, and mismanagement then turned them into pawns in a political game between the Liberals and the NDP. Over the 12 weeks, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s priority, clearly, was the rights of CUPE and not the rights of university students. His casual dismissal of the hardships and injustice that York students have been made to suffer does not bode well for University of Toronto students who may be suffering the same circumstances shortly. The same can be said for the 300,000 students at universities across Ontario whose education may be disrupted by CUPE strikes in 2010.

On air post-strike

Students, faculty and staff were interviewed Feb. 2 and 3 as classes resumed following back-to-work legislation that ended a three-month strike by teaching assistants and contract faculty at York. They included:

  • Alex Bilyk, York University spokesperson, on CJBC-AM, City-TV and CKVR-TV in Barrie
  • Eric Lawee, a humanities professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, on CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning”  
  • Candice Pike, a teaching assistant, on CBC Radio’s “West Coast Morning” in Corner Brook
  • Student Victor Ko, on Omni.2, Toronto
  • Students Melissa Boragina and Lyndon Koopmans, vendor Amir Kadir, York Federation of Students president Hamid Osman and York University spokesperson Alex Bilyk, on “CBC News At Six”
  • Student Aaron Rosenberg, YFS VP equity Krisna Saravanamuttu, York spokesperson Alex Bilyk and CUPE 3903 spokesperson Tyler Shipley, on “Global News”
  • York Federation of Students president Hamid Osman, York University spokesperson Alex Bilyk and CUPE 3903 spokesperson Tyler Shipley, on CHEX-TV, Peterborough
  • YFS VP equity Krisna Saravanamuttu, York University spokesperson Alex Bilyk and CUPE 3903 spokesperson Tyler Shipley, on “Studio Aperto” (Italian), CFMT-TV, Toronto
  • YFS president Hamid Osman, on CBC Radio’s "Here & Now” and CP24-TV
  • Scott Mclean, assistant news editor of Excalibur, on CBC Radio’s “As It Happens”
  • YFS VP equity Krisna Saravanamuttu, on CFRB-FM in Toronto, CHCH-TV in Hamilton and Global TV
  • Student Tom Boutassis and CUPE 3903 spokesperson Tyler Shipley, on CP24-TV
  • Véronique Tomaszewski, sociology professor at York’s Glendon College, and York student Cynthia Morinville, on Radio-Canada newscasts in Moncton and Montreal
  • York student Jeff Moyle and York spokesman Alex Bilyk, on “A Channel News At 6”, CKVR-TV, Barrie
  • Student Sara Piccinini, on CBC Radio’s “All In A Day”, Ottawa
  • Robert Drummond, dean of York’s Faculty of Arts and a member of the University negotiating team, on CBC Radio’s “Ontario Today” Jan. 30

Joint design program among Canada’s best

A select guide to Canada’s top college programs lists the Sheridan-York four-year degree program in design among the most renowned in the country. The Globe and Mail created the list and published it Feb. 4.

On air

  • Peter Victor, an economist in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, talked about economic growth and his new book, Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster, on CBC Radio’s “Ontario Morning” Feb. 2.
  • Karen Burke, a professor in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, talked about the evolution of gospel music, on CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning” Feb. 2.