Changes in birds reflect environmental problems, says retired prof

“Birds are harbingers of negative change, that things aren’t right in the environment,” says author and York Professor Emeritus Richard Pope, wrote Oct. 28. “What’s not good for birds is usually not good for humans.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "twitcher" as a birdwatcher devoted to spotting rare birds. But for Pope, 68, who grew up in a birding family, the activity is much more than a hobby. Birdwatching and with it, the deeper examination of habitat and environment, is an integral and important part of his life. His first introduction to birding occurred before he was born, when his then five-month pregnant mother was chased up a tree by a bull while investigating a woodpecker’s nest in a farmer’s woodlot.

“I really didn’t have much choice in the matter,” he noted with a chuckle. “There was no question whether I’d be a birder, I just was.”

When Pope retired from teaching three years ago, one of his good friends and fellow birder, Hugh Currie, noted he should do a "Big Year", that is, attempt to see a high number of birds in a given area in a year. In Ontario, a "Big Year" is 300 birds, the accepted gold standard, he said. That number changes around the world.

“It’s piddling in Peru,” says Pope, “and if you can’t spot 1,200 birds in three or four weeks in Kenya or the Amazon? Well….”

What began as an off-handed, “Maybe I should,” translated into a year-long, criss-cross voyage across the province in pursuit of the twitching gold standard. Pope has chronicled the highs and lows of the successful quest in his recently released book, The Reluctant Twitcher: A Quite Truthful Account of My Big Birding Year.

Pension reform is coming

Ontario will move ahead with the first part of its pension reform next month as it seeks to get plans on more solid footing and ensure consistency across provinces, wrote The Canadian Press Oct. 29.

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said he was generally supportive of federal changes announced this week but added they addressed only a small segment of pensions. Duncan wouldn’t get into specifics of the legislation but said it will largely be based on recommendations made by Harry Arthurs, former president & vice-chancellor of York University.

The Arthurs Report, released late last year, recommended that the province enhance its pension guarantee fund and appoint a full-time pension advocate, among several other things.

‘It’s impossible to protect everyone’

The Ontario government will introduce pension reforms next month, but Finance Minister Dwight Duncan says the province also hopes to tackle broader challenges facing retirees, wrote the Toronto Star Oct. 29.

Duncan said he would adopt “some” – but not all – of the recommendations from a 222-page report he commissioned from Harry Arthurs last year.

Arthurs, a former dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School and former president & vice-chancellor of York, concluded existing pension plans could be strengthened by cutting costs and requirements to share surplus funds with laid-off workers. He argued laid-off or fired workers should qualify for early retirement benefits only if they meet the requirement.

Arthurs also said the Pension Benefits Guarantee Fund should cover pensions of up to $2,500 a month – from the current maximum of $1,000, a cap imposed in 1980 – when a plan sponsor goes bankrupt, but the fund should be supported by premiums from pension plans, not government subsidies.

Pension tweaks bring little relief to majority

While Ottawa’s five-pronged tweaks of private-sector pensions are welcome, there was little on offer for those without employer pensions at all, wrote the National Post Oct. 29.

“Anything that can help the endangered species of DB (Defined Benefit) pensions is to be welcome but I’m afraid these measures do little to assist the vast majority of Canadians without any pension whatsoever,” says Moshe Milevsky, finance professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University. Nor do the tweaks to DB plans help those with Defined Contribution (DC) pensions or RRSPs, which are exposed to the vagaries of the stock market. Unlike those in DB pensions, DC plan members or those dependent on RRSPs and RRIFs “have no guarantees or promises of lifetime income,” Milevsky said.

Milevsky says some of the tweaks aren’t immediately applicable in the current environment where most companies have funding deficits. Restricting contribution holidays and loosening tax restrictions are “bull market” measures that should have been imposed during the bubble years of surpluses, he added.

Loving hands give strength, healing in times of crisis

At 21 years old, Jason Devitt could play a mean guitar, run across a soccer field like the wind and put internal fire into his university studies. A year later, during his biology studies at York University, Jason…was diagnosed with brain cancer, wrote the Barrie Advance Oct. 28 in a story about reiki, an ancient healing art of laying on of hands.

For the next two years, his body bore the full brunt of this disease. His younger brother, Jonathan, and his parents, Dennis and Joanne, committed themselves to full-time care of this wonderful young man. His older brothers, Ben and Rick, felt helpless living elsewhere.

When Jason died, those who had cared for him with reiki energy attended his funeral. They met there the healthy Jason, captured on video by his brother and displayed for Jason’s world to enjoy and remember.

York professor invited to symposium on fresh water

Renowned scientists from across Canada are expected to be in Bracebridge next June for a symposium on fresh water, wrote the Bracebridge Examiner Oct. 28.

World-renowned scientists are lined up for the event including…Norman Yan, biology professor in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, who will speak on current water issues.

Elections changes ‘baby steps’ in the right direction, says Ajax mayor

A proposed municipal election reform announced by the province this week doesn’t deal with the real “cancer on our municipal election process” – developer and union campaign contributions, wrote the Durham Business Times Oct. 28, in a story about comments by Ajax Mayor Steve Parish.

“It’s a start,” said Professor Robert MacDermid of York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, a longtime critic of allowing such contributions to election campaigns. “I think there’s still work to be done…. We need to do what the federal politicians have done and ban those contribution sources.”

Proposed changes include…closing loopholes in fundraising rules that allow for almost unbridled spending if it’s in the name of fundraising.

That’s an issue, MacDermid said, pointing to one Ontario municipal politician who spent more than twice on fundraisers than what he reported he raised for his campaign. “That’s just using other people’s money to host other people at an event where they’re told how great the candidate is,” he said.

TTC board set to approve design for second York subway station

Eager commuters can finally have a glimpse of how York Region’s first subway station will look, wrote Oct. 28 in a story about a Toronto Transit Commission board meeting to approve the conceptual design for the Spadina line’s Steeles West station being held that day.

There are two bus terminals, one for TTC and one for York Region Transit and Viva, located on opposite sides of the road. There were challenges in designing the station that cuts diagonally across Steeles Avenue, adjacent to lands owned by York University, UPS and others.

Toronto’s station designs have been approved over the last few months, including York University’s in September.

Community Players name choreographer for CATS

The Community Players of New Hamburg will welcome York graduate student Richelle Brown-Hirlehey as choreographer for their upcoming production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, wrote Waterloo County’s New Hamburg Independent Oct. 28.

Hirlehey is the director of the Carousel Dance Company, Carousel Dance Centre Inc., in Waterloo and is the educational director of Dance Extreme where she also instructs and choreographs. In addition to teaching, she choreographs for Original Kids Theatre Company, high schools in southwestern Ontario, London Musical Productions, her own company Barefoot Creative, and has danced and choreographed for the University of Western Ontario Dance Company for eight years and the Hamilton Dance Company for three years.

Among her professional accomplishments, Hirlehey was assistant choreographer on “Bella Dancerella – Disney Princess” and “Disney’s High School Musical 2” and “Dora Dance to the Rescue” DVD for Spin Master Ltd. and on “Get Up & Move”, a dance instructional DVD for Toniolo Productions.

She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in dance at York University.

Community-focused housing concept being explored

Usually when one moves to a new city, figuring out how to join the community can be a bit of a challenge, wrote BC’s Kelowna Capital News Oct. 27. But building community is practically second nature for Megan Salhus (PhD ’08), who arrived here last February upon completing her doctoral degree at York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies.

Her thesis was on co-housing, a community-focused lifestyle which builds more interaction with neighbours into daily living so members of the community can share in the ever-accumulating workload daily life delivers us, whether it be by cooking a communal meal or having someone to chat with while doing laundry.

“The overwhelming conclusion was that co-housing living was better,” said Salhus, who lived with two West Coast co-housing communities as part of her research.

To date, this form of housing has come from grassroots-driven groups formed from a shared desire to experience more of a community than the typical North American neighbourhood provides.

On air

  • A study on education and finding employment, co-written by Xueda Song, economics professor in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, and Craig Riddell of the University of British Columbia, was discussed on CBC Radio across Canada Oct. 28.
  • A drama project at a Markham high school developed by Stephen Gaetz, associate dean Research & Field Development in York’s Faculty of Education, and York grad Allyson Marsolais (MA ’05), to highlight the issue of homelessness, was featured on CP24-TV Oct. 28.