York grad finds meaning in tragedy of mother’s fatal disease

Kinga Njilas (BA Hons. ’08) was in her third year at York University when her mother began to die of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), Lou Gehrig’s disease, wrote the Toronto Star Aug. 3 in a story about Njilas’ success in raising awareness of the disease.

In the four unimaginable years that followed, this only child of Serbian immigrants moved out of the house she had shared near campus to commute from her parents’ home in Guelph.

As 42-year-old Erika lost the ability to speak, swallow and ultimately move on her own, her daughter switched her field of study to health & society from the more demanding kinesiology.

It added a year to her degree, but freed up more time at night to feed and nurse and even sleep alongside her mother while her father worked nights as a millwright.

This is what it’s like to have your life blow up at 21.

But it is also a story of how one young soccer buff handled tragedy with such grace and surprising candour that she has won international kudos for spreading awareness of the day-to-day challenge of a disease that shows no mercy as it breaks down the nerve cells of the brain and spine.

By writing a story for class about the experiencehow she learned to read her mother’s eye movements, how she stopped cooking so her mother wouldn’t smell food she no longer could eat Njilas created such a rare window into the disease that the ALS Society of Canada printed it in a direct mail campaign that raised $40,000.

Green energy plan gives tourist town the blues

Residents of Bala, located about a two hours drive north of Toronto, say they have nothing against hydro power, but fear the $23-million facility and its construction will destroy the tiny town’s main attraction: the falls that lure curious eyeballs and day-tripper cash, wrote The Globe and Mail Aug. 2.

This is one local battlefield of Ontario’s Green Energy Act, whose subsidy program prioritizes small-scale green-energy projects over larger, dirtier ones. In a matter of months, the province has made itself the best place on the continent to make a business case for green energy.

The irony is these mini-projects set the stage for hundreds of confrontations with small communities that balk at the prospect of a power plant or wind farm upsetting their delicate equilibrium.

“Going to a system which relies on more distributed sources of generation, lots of smaller facilities as opposed to one big one, the worst consequence is you do exacerbate the potential for these social conflicts,” said York University renewable energy policy professor Mark Winfield. “Instead of trying to build one big gas facility in Oakville, you’re potentially building 100 wind turbine sites, each of which has the potential to turn into a little donnybrook. “

The modern science library stays relevant

John Dupuis, 47, heads the Steacie Science & Engineering Library at York University in Toronto, wrote North Carolina’s Raleigh News & Observer Aug. 2. He doles out sage insights on the future of science libraries and books at his blog, Confessions of a Science Librarian (scienceblogs.com/confessions). He tweets as @dupuisj. Answers have been edited.

Q: You write frequently about the future of science libraries. How do you see them changing vis-a-vis the digital media revolution and the current financial crises?

I think the idea of academic libraries collecting stuff will be less important in the future. Or perhaps more precisely, we’ll become a lot choosier about the stuff we buy. Already I find myself asking, “What’s worth paying for?” And the answer to that is the databases, the journals, the full text content that really makes a difference in the research and educational mission of my institution.

Q: How is open access publishing affecting academic libraries?

Academic libraries were really one of the driving forces behind open access. So I think it’s a good thing for us, especially since ultimately we hope it’ll help ease the crazy budget pressures we’re under when it comes to journal subscriptions. Lots of libraries now actually will pay the author fees for faculty to publish in open access journals such as Public Library of Science or BioMed Central.

Film studios work with York on 3-D technology

Everyone from video game console makers such as Nintendo, to satellite TV services such as Bell TV, is making a bet on 3-D, wrote the Toronto Star July 31.

“The studios are realizing there’s a golden goose here because you get all these bums in seats that will pay a 30 per cent premium,” says Ali Kazimi, an independent filmmaker and professor in York’s Department of Film in the Faculty of Fine Arts.

Several Toronto firms are participating in a provincially funded research project called 3D FLIC. The two-year project combines the talents of visual scientists at York University with filmmakers and their suppliers.

Kazimi says a lot of work lies ahead. “It’s a new medium…. We really don’t know at this stage what are the true possibilities of 3-D storytelling in film language.”

Art world likes where he’s coming from

Between exhibitions, residencies and projects around the world (and that much-deserved family vacation in Algonquin), it’s been quite a year as Brendan Fernandes (BFA Spec. Hons. ’02), just 30, becomes a brandname on the Canadian and international art scenes, wrote the Toronto Star July 31.

Fernandes’ particular hybridity offers a fresh take on the old standard of identity politics in contemporary art, and it caught the eye of Philip Monk, the director/curator of the Art Gallery of York University. Monk was on the jury for the Sobey Art Award this year, and chose all the candidates on Ontario’s long list. “It’s refreshing to see some of the themes Brendan is working with,” Monk said. “He has such a unique look at identity. He very quickly developed a focused body of work. For such a young artist, it’s really something.”

Montreal takes Hollywood

Alan Middleton, marketing professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University, says celebrities are looking to launch clothing labels as an investment in sustaining their careers, wrote the National Post July 31. When the singing or acting is over, they want something to fall back on. Jay-Z and Jessica Simpson have been particularly successful in this area. Their fashion and accessory brands each generate annual sales of more than US$500-million.

There are countless designers and fashion houses able to execute a clothing line. But only a few crack the celebrity circle.

“You can design and produce celebrity fashion anywhere in the world today thanks to modern technology,” Middleton says. “You just need to be linked in to Hollywood and know the key players. Canadians can compete in niche celebrity brands up to a point. The challenge comes when the global business grows to such a size that you have to have a lot of capital and a lot of help to manage the business.”

Closure of Cape Breton’s oldest temple marks end of era

“For a time, there was actually more Jews in Cape Breton than Halifax,” says Professor Emeritus Irving Abella, a Jewish historian in York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, wrote the National Post Aug. 3 in a story about the closing of The Congregation Sons of Israel Synagogue in Glace Bay, NS. “They were refugees from the Russian pogroms.”

They started arriving in Cape Breton in 1890. The coal companies would advertise in the European papers, offering free passage for any man willing to go into the mines.

“The Jews were a one-generation phenomenon,” Abella says. “People worked and slaved so their children didn’t need to do what they did and the kids went off to school and became professionals and never came back. It is the professionalization of the Jewish community that doomed the Cape Breton settlements.”

A wise counsellor, a gifted teacher

Keenly interested in academic freedom and university governance, Daniel Soberman wrote a study on tenure for the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), tracing its legal basis, wrote The Globe and Mail Aug. 2 in an obituary. According to Michiel Horn, University historian and professor emeritus at Glendon College, it cleared up a lot of misunderstandings; in 1997 CAUT awarded Soberman its Milner Memorial Award for outstanding contributions to academic freedom. Horn used the Soberman report in his 1999 book Academic Freedom in Canada: A History.

Ricky Foley’s fuzzy math

This time Ricky Foley is prepared, wrote Olympia, WA’s The Olympian Aug. 3.

Four years after getting cut in training camp by the Baltimore Ravens, the 29-year-old weakside defensive end has another shot at the National Football League with the Seattle Seahawks. Foley is taking no shortcuts.

“The biggest difference is preparation,” he said. “I know all my plays and I know how to study them, memorize them. This is my job. Before in Baltimore, I didn’t know how to study the playbook.”

He played his college ball at York University and by most accounts is still developing. But Foley, who saw some brief action with the first-team defence during a scrimmage Monday afternoon, intends to give the Seahawks reasons to keep him around.

Slayings rattle Flemingdon Park’s outward calm

The slayings in Flemingdon Park this summer have brought a shadow of violence back to a community where, on the surface, it appeared to have lifted, wrote The Globe and Mail Aug. 3.

To help with safety concerns, Toronto Community Housing installed 120 security cameras in Flemingdon Park in 2006, at a cost of close to $1 million. Many cameras have been vandalized, rendering 22 inoperable.

None of these initiatives are likely to break the cycle of violence, according to Carl James, a sociology professor in York’s Faculty of Education and director of the York Centre for Education & Community. The way to get through to Flemingdon’s most vulnerableits youthis to provide them with opportunities and hope, including better access to education and jobs, wrote the Globe.

Osgoode grad turned playwright says people should stop scapegoating Muslims

Catherine Frid (LLB ’87) wants to make it perfectly clear: she’s not expressing sympathy for terrorists in her new play, wrote The Canadian Press Aug. 2.

The playwright does hope, however, that her story of a member of the infamous Toronto 18 stirs up a little dialogue about life in the post-Sept. 11 world.

Homegrown, which looks at her relationship with convicted terrorist Shareef Abdelhaleem over 18 months, premieres this week at Toronto’s SummerWorks Theatre festival.

Frid says Canada has a better track record than most other countries on the human-rights front – but that it still has a history of finding scapegoats.

Frid, who graduated from [York University’s] prestigious Osgoode Hall Law School but never practised law, met Abdelhaleem through her ex-husband, who had taught him in high school.

Selling the Saskatchewan advantage

What are the chances of an Israeli-born ballet dancer ending up as business dean at the University of Saskatchewan? asked columnist Gordon Brown in The Globe and Mail Aug. 2. That is York/Osgoode grad Daphne Taras‘ story, reflecting a career packed with improbable twists.

Taras (BA Hons. ’78, LLM ’08), recently appointed dean of the university’s Edwards School of Business, moves to Saskatoon from Calgary at a time when Saskatchewan is basking in economic renewal. Taras, 53, comes with strong credentials as a teacher of industrial relations, which should serve her well in a province steeped in the tradition of prairie co-ops, Crown corporations and labour unions.

“Did you know when you took undergraduate political science, you’d end up as a business school dean?” asked Brown.

“Never,” Tara replied. “And I actually entered York University as a classical ballet chick, a fine arts major. I’m one credit short of finishing a dance degree there.

Hamilton hires lobbyist to plead its case

The city has turned to an outside consultant to help it plead its Pan American Games case to the province, wrote the Hamilton Spectator July 31.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger’s office has hired Bob Richardson, of the Toronto-based lobbying firm Devon Group, to act as a conduit between the city and the province on the Pan Am stadium location debate.

Richardson is listed on the province’s lobbyist registry for nine other organizations, including Waste Management of Canada, York University and Cineplex Entertainment. He is not registered as a lobbyist for Hamilton.

On air

  • Saeed Rahnema, political science professor in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, spoke about a man who falsely claimed to be involved with Iranian policy on haircuts and to have a degree from the Schulich School of Business at York University, on CFRB Radio Aug. 2.
  • Paul Delaney, professor of physics & astronomy in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, spoke about an asteroid that appears to be on a collision course with Earth, on CTV News July 31.