Students welcome creation of York task force

After a month of putting up with boisterous protests and heated demonstrations on campus, students at York University are welcoming the creation of a task force commissioned to find ways to rein in shouting matches and encourage constructive debate, wrote the Toronto Star March 17.

The Task Force on Student Life, Learning & Community will review existing protocols to "improve the learning atmosphere" and encourage healthy discourse on campus.

"The important thing for us is to . . . look at our rules, see if they serve the purpose and try to develop and modify them, or identify new measures to improve them," said York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri, who announced the task force.

"I am really concerned that our rules have served us well, but there are instances that have happened over the years, not only recently, where you wish the overall learning environment is better," said Shoukri.

The task force will be made up of seven students and seven appointed faculty members. Interested students are required to answer questions about why they want to join the group. They will be selected in a few weeks. The findings are expected by Aug. 31.

Last week, disruptive student groups were temporarily suspended and fined by the University after their protests at Vari Hall disturbed classes there. It was a move some students criticized as harsh and indicative of a campus trying to shut down dissent. But others students say it is about time protesters are put in their place.

"It’s becoming really disruptive," said Omair Hussain, a third-year political science student who was trying to write an exam in Vari Hall when one protest got very loud. "York is really politically active, and that is why I chose to come here, but there have to be some kinds of boundaries and rules that have to be implemented," he said.

One of the goals of the task force is to find more proactive ways of dealing with such problems, said Patrick Monahan, the dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, who will head the 14-member task force.

"In my view, calling the police or security forces is the last thing that we should do on a university campus," said Monahan, who will be appointed to the post of vice-president academic & provost in July. "If you are having to call security forces, you know right away you haven’t done the kind of work at the front end to encourage the type of dialogue and exchange of ideas that we want."

Daniel Ferman, the president of Hillel@York, a Jewish group on campus, called the task force a "positive first step towards changing the toxic atmosphere at York University."

  • York University has taken its first administrative step toward easing tension on a campus plagued by tension between Jewish students and anti-Israel protesters, wrote the National Post March 17. The school launched the Task Force on Student Life, Learning & Community yesterday, to review the atmosphere on campus and invite student input on how it can be improved. 
    "There have been some incidents that seem to me to pose some serious problems," said Patrick Monahan, the recently appointed University vice-president academic & provost and dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, who will head the committee. The task force, to be comprised of seven faculty and seven students, will seek input from the student body through online surveys, focus groups and "town hall" style forums. 
  • One of Canada’s largest universities says it will probe recent campus clashes relating to the Middle East, reported the New York City-based Jewish news agency JTA March 16.

In a move welcomed by Jewish students and communal leaders, York University announced Monday that it will form a task force "to review concerns about the student environment" on campus. Jewish students have complained of a toxic atmosphere on campus arising from Israel’s recent military incursion in the Gaza Strip.

"Recent events on campus have raised serious concerns over whether our most cherished values and commitments are being undermined by excessive conflict, intolerance and even intimidation," said the task force’s terms of reference, The Globe and Mail newspaper reported.

"We are pleased that the University has taken into account the deep concerns expressed by our community," said David Koschitzky, chair of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

"We will lend support to this task force with the expectation that it will lead to a campus that respects civil discourse and the fair enforcement of the rules," said Daniel Ferman, president of Hillel@York.

"We also urge the York administration to address the immediate safety concerns affecting Jewish students on campus prior to the Aug. 31 deadline of this task force," he said.

  • Patrick Monahan talked about the task force with host Matt Galloway (BA Hons. ’94), who talked about his own experience of debates at York, on CBC Radio’s “Here and Now” (Toronto) March 16.

York student dies as result of car crash

A 22-year-old man has died following a crash in the Markham and Kingston roads area on Sunday, March 8, wrote March 11. Police said a Pontiac was travelling east on Hill Crescent when it mounted the curb and struck a hydro pole at 3:49am. Jonathon Talbot, the passenger in the vehicle, was taken to hospital where he died Tuesday.

Talbot went to Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate Institute and then York University. He was an avid swimmer who used to work as a lifeguard. The driver suffered serious injuries.  

York grad named a YWCA Woman of Distinction

Having seen the dedication and work ethic shared by her foremothers and the few rewards their work earned them, local resident Angela Robertson (BA ’91, MA ’93) knew she had to make a difference in the lives of women, wrote the City Centre Mirror March 11. Robertson has devoted much of her life to activism, working tirelessly to help women facing poverty, as well as striving to break down race, gender and sexual orientation barriers.

As the executive director of Sistering, which offers a variety of supports for homeless, underhoused and low-income women in Toronto, Robertson is devoted to giving marginalized women a voice while providing the help they need to get off the streets. "Homeless women face unique challenges," she said. "For instance, homeless women experience, compared to women in the general population, much higher rates of physical violence and rape. They also face more violence compared to homeless men."

Robertson was instrumental in the writing of 2008’s Women and Homelessness Bulletin, an in-depth report that looks at the growing problem as well as health, child care and other associated issues.

Robertson’s advocacy work started at an early age. In high school, she wrote editorials for the Central Commerce Collegiate school newspaper focusing on issues impacting black and immigrant students.

Robertson went on to study at York University ("seen to be the activist university," she said), where she helped found Black Women at York. The group offered ways of dealing with the unique challenges faced by many students. While other student organizations and some courses looked at elements of being black, female or a new Canadian, many of those groups and classes offered false choices. "We felt we were being asked to divide our identity so that we were either women or we were black," she said. "That was an impossible division; we are black women wherever we go."

For her tireless advocacy work, particularly in the field of female poverty, Robertson was recently named the YWCA Toronto’s 2009 Woman of Distinction for Social Change. While she appreciates the honour, she is quick to deflect credit for the work she has done. "The people who need to be acknowledged, affirmed and rewarded are the women who use services like Sistering, the women who get up and face the day being homeless or who have to survive the indignities of poverty," she said. "They live their lives in horrific circumstances and are rarely acknowledged for having resisted."

Alberta homelessness strategy an example for others, says York’s Gaetz

Ending homelessness in Alberta will cost taxpayers more than $3.3 billion over the next decade, according to a report released Monday that suggests it could cost twice as much to simply manage the growing problem, reported the Calgary Herald March 17.

The 10-year plan to end homelessness, prepared by the Alberta Secretariat for Action on Homelessness, focuses on moving the province’s homeless population into homes with supports, rather than providing more emergency shelters. Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Yvonne Fritz said the province is committed to the plan but won’t outline funding before the April 7 budget.

A national expert on homelessness said Alberta’s strategy – Canada’s first provincial plan – is an example for other governments to follow. "When provincial governments and the federal government withdrew from investing in housing in the ’90s, there was this belief in the magical solutions of the marketplace, that the private sector would step in and build affordable housing," said Stephen Gaetz, associate dean, research & field development, in the Faculty of Education at York University.

"That just didn’t happen," said Gaetz, who set up the Canadian Homelessness Research Network.

Some teens use sex toys, says York study

Youth should have access to sex toys, so why are they barred from entering most establishments that sell the merchandise?, argued the gay and lesbian biweekly Xtra March 12 in a story surveying policies at various Toronto sex shops.

Sarah Flicker, a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University who is a principal investigator of the recently administrated Toronto Teen Survey, says her research is among the first to investigate teen use of sex toys.

Of the more than 1,200 youths aged 13 to 18 surveyed, 6.4 per cent of girls and 3.9 per cent of boys had used sex toys, Flicker reported. Of those teens 89.6 per cent had also engaged in penetrative sex. The study did not ask where the youth accessed the toys or account for the use of common household objects as sex toys.

Dogfight over religious dogma

The tinpot dictators who dominate the so-called UN Human Rights Council are at it again – squawking about "defamation of religion" in a seedy attempt to undermine freedom of expression, wrote columnist Mindelle Jacobs in the Toronto Sun and other Sun Media newspapers across Canada March 17. 

Curiously, only Islam is specifically mentioned in the draft resolution, released by UN Watch last week, said Jacobs. Could this have anything to do with the fact that there are so many Muslim countries on the Human Rights Council?  

The zealots running the UN Human Rights Council want to crush freedom of expression in the West as well, under the guise of protecting religion. "The very Muslim states screaming about human rights abuses are the abusers themselves," observes Anne Bayefsky, a York University professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts and editor of Eye on the UN.

The resolution is just an attempt to stifle criticism of extremism, she says. "It has to do with the antithesis of freedom," she adds. "It’s a human rights fraud from beginning to end."

Does Harlem have a lesson for Toronto neighbourhoods?

Twenty or so years ago, it would be unthinkable that Canadian policy-makers and urban politicians might have something to learn from Harlem in the area of social policy, wrote Simon Black, a doctoral researcher at the City Institute of York University and visiting Fulbright fellow at the City University of New York, in an opinion piece in the Toronto Star March 15.

Along a range of socio-economic indicators – from homelessness to health – 20 years ago Toronto compared favourably to New York. But times have changed. That’s why the findings of a survey of Toronto’s public elementary schools, reported recently in the Star, are disturbing but not surprising.

The report found that poverty and "race" have an impact on levels of student achievement. Most sociologists could tell you as much, but the report’s conclusions were particularly bleak: Children who live in poverty or come from certain racial backgrounds are falling behind in school as early as Grade 3.

Enter Harlem and the ideas of Geoffrey Canada. While Harlem has changed since the days of crack, it remains disproportionately poor, black, and affected by a myriad of social problems. And like Toronto, the achievement gap between students from low-income and racialized groups and others is wide.

Canada is the founder and director of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a project committed to ending intergenerational poverty in Harlem. The New York Times Magazine called the HCZ, "one of the most ambitious social-policy experiments of our time," saying no effort to break the cycle of poverty in America has been "so closely watched."

Following on research in the social sciences and neurology that show the skills gap between rich and poor kids opens up very early in life, Canada sought to build a program that would combine educational, social and medical services, following children from birth to college. For Canada, the idea was to create "a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighbourhood just can’t slip through."

On air 

  • Alison Macpherson, professor in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science, Faculty of Health, spoke about a new study of bodychecking and injuries to young hockey players, on CBC Radio’s “Island Morning” (Charlottetown) March 16.
  • Education Professor Heather Lotherington discussed how the education system is not paying enough attention to the ways children learn when they play video games, on “Call for Help” on the cable channel G4techTV March 16.