Happy Birthday! There’s cake today and a green gala this weekend

The red and white birthday cakes are baked and iced, loot bags are stuffed and balloons are ready to go. Now all that is left is the party. Today is York’s 50th birthday and it is also a celebration of York’s 50-year history of redefining postsecondary education as Canada’s interdisciplinary University.

Fifty years ago today: what happened?

On March 26, 1959, the York University Act received royal assent – the approval of the lieutenant governor – after its passage in the Ontario legislature. The law chartering York University was introduced in the chamber on Feb. 17, 1959 as a private member’s bill by York West Progressive Conservative MPP H.L. Rowntree (with the blessing of then-premier Leslie Frost), and passed its third reading on March 16. Ten days later, York was born – on paper. York did not truly become a reality until September, 1960, when the first classes were held in the University of Toronto’s Falconer Hall.

So what does a University that is both 50 years young and 50 years old do to celebrate such a momentous occasion? In addition to all the other U50 birthday events planned for the next few days, and the host of academic events scheduled throughout 2009, there is also the York in Concert Black Tie Gala on Saturday evening.

The concert, staged in the Tribute Communities Recital Hall on York’s Keele campus, will shine the spotlight on some of York’s most accomplished alumni. They will perform for a tuxedoed crowd, offering a veritable triple threat of singing, dancing and acting. Planning has been underway for more than a year. Faculty of Fine Arts Dean Emeritus Phillip Silver, who bowed off the decanal stage last summer, has been closeted behind closed doors, busy at work planning the gala to beat all galas. Together with the University’s 50th anniversary organizing committee, Silver has brought together a who’s who of artists to the York stage to celebrate the University’s 50th anniversary in grand style.

Left: Phillip Silver

Like any great production, planning revolves around performers’ schedules. The artists showcased in the gala enthusiastically agreed to come to York from places around the world, some agreeing many months ago. Schedules being schedules, when the gala’s organizers discovered the show would run through Earth Hour, they knew that shutting down the house lights for one hour from 8:30 to 9:30pm or shifting the date would be impossible. So they developed a made-for-York solution and looked for a way to offset the carbon generated by the event.

Cindy Bettcher, U50 project director, called on Helen Psathas, York’s senior manager of environmental design and sustainability, for assistance. Psathas is responsible for design and sustainability considerations for the more than 500 acres of land and woodlots that make up York’s campuses. She turned to the Canadian company Carbonzero to calculate the carbon that would be generated by the gala and to develop a plan to offset that carbon.

"With climate change, carbon offsets are a way of investing in a renewable resource that permanently offsets the carbon generated by events such as the gala," says Psathas.

Carbon offsets compensate for or "offset" an equivalent greenhouse gas emission from another source, says Psathas. When an organization voluntarily seeks to offset carbon, she says, it is usually because the carbon cannot be easily eliminated by improved efficiency, conservation initiatives or changes in behaviour, as in the case of the York in Concert Gala.

Carbon offsets help mitigate global warming by investing in green initiatives, tree planting or other projects that reduce greenhouse gases. To calculate the carbon generated by the gala, Psathas asked Bettcher to provide details on the technical aspects and a host of other details related to the event. Psathas then engaged CarbonZero to calculate the gala’s footprint.

"Earth Hour is being observed between 8:30 and 9:30pm across other parts of campus," says Psathas. "It is a time to turn off the lights and demonstrate our support for addressing the harmful effects of climate change. This is a carbon neutral event. Carbon emissions associated with the gala have been calculated by Carbonzero and the related offsets will be used to plant 50 dogwood shrubs in the Arboretum along Pond Road on the Keele Campus."

"We wanted to keep with the spirit of Earth Hour and create a solution that would have a lasting benefit to York University," says Bettcher. The shrubs will be planted later in the spring once the ground has thawed. Bettcher is planning to seek the assistance of York students to help in the planting.

Those attending the gala will be informed of the University’s carbon-offset work by York alumna and CBC broadcaster Barbara Budd (BA ’74), who, along with author Katherine Govier (MA ’72), is serving as a guest emcee for the gala.

The York in Concert performances will range from the jazz stylings of well-known vocalist Matt Dusk (BFA Spec. Hons. ’02) and an opera aria by Vania Chan (BFA Spec. Hons. ’08), currently continuing her training in New York City, to a humorous ballet by choreographer and York faculty member Susan Cash (BFA Spec. Hons. ’78, MA ’07).

Right: From top, some of the York alumni participating in Saturday’s York in Concert event include choreographer Susan Cash, classical vocalist Vania Chan, jazz vocalist Matt Dusk, dancer Yvonne Ng and author Nino Ricci

Other performers include dancer Nicole Rose Bond (BFA Spec. Hons. ’05) and choreographer Darcey Callison (PhD ’09) with musical direction by Andrew Craig (BFA Spec. Hons. ’93), host of CBC Radio’s "Canada Live". Also performing are jazz vocalist Rita di Ghent (BFA ’83); writer and actor Diane Flacks (BFA Spec. Hons. ’88); Latin vocalist Amanda Martinez (IMBA ’99); dancer and choreographer Yvonne Ng (BFA Spec. Hons. ’87); Governor General Award-winning author Nino Ricci (BA Spec. Hons. ’81); vocalist Suba Sankaran (BFA Spec. Hons. ’97, MA ’02); the a cappella chorus Wibi Jazzin; and choreographer and dancer Sashar Zarif (MA ’07). The script for the event is being developed by Jacintha Wesselingh (BFA Spec. Hons. ’98). All of the participants, both onstage and backstage, will be York alumni or current students, with the exception of Silver.

For more on the York in Concert Gala, vist the U50 Web site. For more on carbon offsetting and what it means, visit the CarbonZero Web site.

The concert will be web cast – live – via the Internet. There will be a link on the U50 Web site and through the York in Concert Web page.