Laxer shocked by Cold War plan for his family’s internment at Casa Loma

When James Laxer was growing up in Toronto, he suspected his family was under constant surveillance, wrote CBC News online Oct. 15. But he had no idea that the Canadian government had a Cold War-era plan in place that  if a national security crisis struck would have seen him, his mother, father, sister and brother arrested and detained.

And that under the plan his family would have been herded on to a bus and shuttled several blocks from their home to Casa Loma, the historic castle where they would be kept until a permanent internment camp was ready. “This shocks the hell out of me,” the York University political science professor said when CBC told him of the plan.

The tourist landmark was among a number of buildings across Canada designated to temporarily hold internees under early versions of the secret contingency plan to arrest and detain Communists and sympathizers in the event of a security crisis.

Details of the plan believed to be one of the most draconian peace-time national security programs in Canadian history were unearthed in a joint investigation by CBC’s "The Fifth Estate" and Radio-Canada’s "Enquête" investigative program. The plan was dubbed PROFUNC, which stands for its intended targets, PROminent FUNCtionaries of the Communist Party plan.

As a child, Laxer recalled, he felt acutely aware of hatred toward the Communist Party. “I felt deeply threatened. I felt that the world I lived in was a very insecure world. The message was, I got this by the time I was three or four, was that the police were bad, the police were our enemy, the police were out there to do us harm,” said Laxer, 68.

All those emotions resurfaced when he learned of the PROFUNC plan, Laxer said. “When you say it to me, I feel a kind of anxiety that brings back the anxiety that I felt as a kid,” he said.

Laxer has decided to ask the RCMP, the US Central Intelligence Agency and Canada’s National Archives for access to files collected during years of spying on his family. However, it could be years until he receives them.

Tarred by the same brush

In her essay “Trouble in the Monkey House” (Sept. 12), Jennifer Schuessler concocts a peculiar mash-up, wrote a group of 10 academics that included James Benson and William Greaves, professors emeriti at Glendon College, and Stuart Shanker, distinguished research professor in philosophy & psychology in York’s Faculty of Health and director of the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative, in a letter to The New York Times published in its Sunday Book Review section Oct. 17.

The pairing of a fictional account of bonobos (Sara Gruen’s Ape House) with a nonfiction book on apes (Jon Cohen’s Almost Chimpanzee) makes some sense; Gruen grounded her novel in visits to real-life bonobos at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, a place also visited by Cohen, said the letter.

But lest readers be led astray, we wish to clarify that the Great Ape Trust is in no way connected with Marc Hauser, the Harvard scientist mentioned in the essay who has been accused of falsifying data in his primate studies. For those with serious interest about the research into the language abilities of bonobos, extensive video documentation is freely available on the Internet, including material at

We are scientists who have worked closely with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleagues at the Great Ape Trust, and/or have observed and interacted with the bonobos. We teach and write about the work impugned in the Book Review – because we respect its scientific integrity, because it has powerfully transformed our understanding of what apes are capable of, and because, through it, we grasp more fully what it means to share our world with other sentient creatures.

Eco fees: Can program be salvaged?

Europe’s policies have made huge differences in design, says Mark Winfield, professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, wrote the Toronto Star Oct. 16 in a story about the effectiveness of eco-fees on the packaging industry and the impact of their cancellation by the provincial government.

Here, producers of potentially hazardous household products – which were part of Ontario’s cancelled eco-fee program – might have been inspired to rethink the chemical composition of say, toilet cleaners. Or change the packaging to make recycling easier, such as using cardboard egg cartons instead of clear plastic, for example.

Last summer’s fiasco remains a huge political problem, especially since 2011 is an election year for the province. A recent Toronto Star-Angus Reid poll found that 73 per cent of people asked thought the eco-fee program was the wrong approach.

Environmentalists such as Winfield fear eco fees are now politically tainted. “It’s going to become a no-go zone,” he says. “We had an opportunity here, and it was really blown.”

Cash flow crucial when managing a seasonal business

Owners of seasonal businesses that only generate cash flow for part of the year face huge logistical and financial challenges, wrote The Globe and Mail Oct. 18.

“Canada certainly has more seasonality than many countries,” said Professor Robert Kozinets, area coordinator (marketing) in the Schulich School of Business at York University, noting diversification is one way to survive. “In Southern Italy you can do all right selling ice cream all year round. In Ontario, that won’t work, and you might want to think about adding some hot chocolate to your menu once the leaves fall from the trees.”

Restocking your retirement plan in the aftermath of 2008’s market meltdown

For those seeking guidance, a new book by Moshe Milevsky, finance professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University,  and former financial adviser Alexandra Macqueen, Pensionize Your Nest Egg, is a useful reference, wrote Montreal’s The Gazette Oct. 18 in an article about investment strategies for their retirement savings.

In particular, it explains the role annuities can play as income-replacement vehicles.

Milevsky calls annuities “longevity insurance,” virtually the only insurance policy people actually hope to use, and says they’re as important to a retirement plan as stocks, bonds and cash.

Quebec’s quiet Brother Andre made a saint

Brother Andre, the humble Quebec cleric who was credited with miracle healings before his death in 1937, became Canada’s first saint of the 21st century Sunday in a moving ceremony at the Vatican, wrote The Canadian Press, Oct. 17.

In Montreal, the church at St. Joseph’s Oratory was packed to overflowing as people gathered to watch a live broadcast of the ceremony on a big-screen TV. People also came from the US and other Canadian provinces.

“It’s probably the only opportunity I’ll get to see the canonization of a saint,” said Catherine Kirkpatrick, an 18-year-old student who made the trip from Toronto with her York University church group. “When I read his autobiography, it was so inspiring and touching I felt I wanted to be part of the celebration.”

Ripping off someone else’s work isn’t always indefensible

Among the voices calling for a change in viewpoint here in Canada – where C-32, a controversial bill to reform copyright legislation, is inching its way through Parliament – is Marcus Boon, a professor of English in York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies who authored the book In Praise of Copying, which hails the act of duplication as technologically inevitable, inherently human and beneficial under the right circumstances, wrote the National Post Oct. 17.

“The core message of the book is to move the debate from a kind of narrow discussion of copyright and intellectual property law…to really understanding how broad the issue of copying is, and how reliant we are on something like copying to function as human beings and members of society,” Boon says of his sometimes esoteric book.

These benefits of copying, Boon believes, will happen no matter what: A generational cultural shift in attitudes towards copying is already well under way, and no amount of lobbying by luxury goods makers, film studios and the recording industry will change that. Going with the flow of information can actually benefit creators, he says; for example, some musicians feel the pirate-driven proliferation of their work builds audiences for profitable live performances.

In his students, Boon sees a generation brought up in a world of casual piracy, unable to explain its moral choices but unwilling to stop making them. (For the record, Boon’s book is available to be downloaded for free, and he encourages his students to “plagiarize, but please cite your plagiarisms.”)

Paradoxically, as copyright restrictions have grown tighter, technology has raised a generation of so-called thieves of digital content, with access to what free information advocates regard as a “commonwealth” of human ideas and creativity.

“We suddenly have incredibly easy access to so many things via the Internet,” Boon says. “We can see what the common wealth actually is on computers in a way that we couldn’t 30 years ago. At the same time, our laws that control our access to that common wealth are more aggressively enforced than ever before.

“We have this common wealth, but we can’t actually do anything with it without breaking the law. Right now I think the situation is strange because so many people live in a legal grey zone where they’re downloading … and yet everybody does it, or nearly everybody.”

  • Marcus Boon gave a reading recently to promote his new book. It took place at Spoonbill & Sugartown, a bookstore in Brooklyn, NY. About 40 or 50 people showed up. But they didn’t hear a single word written by Boon, wrote The Chronicle of Higher Education Oct. 17.

Instead, he read from a 1960s sex manual, an Italian cookbook, and Bob Dylan’s memoir, among others. He had grabbed those books, more or less at random, from the store’s shelves an hour before the event. So why not read from the book he actually wrote? “I didn’t see a need to,” says Boon, a professor of English in York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. That’s because, he says, the same concepts could be found elsewhere, albeit in slightly altered form.

Not coincidentally, that’s the case he makes in his book, In Praise of Copying. Boon argues that originality is more complicated than it seems, and that imitation may be the sincerest form of being human. He writes: “I came to recognize that many of the boundaries we have set up between activities we call ‘copying’ and those we call ‘not copying’ are false, and that, objectively, phenomena that involve copying are everywhere around us.”

He read from the cookbook because recipes aren’t protected by copyright law (unless they contain a “substantial literary expression,” according to the US Copyright Office). He read from the memoir because of Dylan’s liberal borrowings from traditional folk music. And he read from the sex manual because, well, sex is all about reproduction, isn’t it?

At one point during the evening, Boon seemed to be reading from his own book. In fact, he had slipped his dust jacket over a copy of Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, a new book by Lewis Hyde. Hyde, a professor of creative writing at Kenyon College and author of the much-lauded books The Gift and Trickster Makes This World, touches on many of the same themes as Boon, extolling “that vast store of unowned ideas, inventions, and works of art we have inherited from the past and continue to enrich.”

Receiver sticks close to home

For Jonelle Tolbert, life these days is a roller coaster of pleasure and pain, struggle and triumph, dejection and inspiration, wrote the Toronto Star and The Mississauga News Oct. 16.

Tolbert is a college football player, but on a mission to play pro ball. But wanting to follow in the footsteps of his father Emanuel, an 11-year Canadian Football League veteran who won a Grey Cup with the Argos in 1983, is something that doesn’t just happen by snapping his fingers.

An exceptional athlete with deceptive speed, Tolbert is a wide receiver on a York University team that has struggled with one of the worst records in the country. When he’s feeling depressed, usually after a loss, Tolbert only has to think about a woman he admires – his 66-year-old grandmother, Maureen.

Never short on advice, including critiquing his game, she has been unable to see him play because of battles with kidney disease and breast cancer. “I play for my grandmother – she has gone through a great deal and is my inspiration,” said Tolbert. “She has shown me not to give up, keep forging ahead, because good things will come.”

 “He’s such a competitor,” said York head coach Warren Craney. “You want guys like him on your team because you know he’s one you can count on to get the job done.”

Tolbert is aware that the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Saskatchewan Roughriders, who like his speed, are interested. “Everything happens for a reason,” said Tolbert, who didn’t play last year because he didn’t have the required number of credits. “It was my (CFL) draft year – and I didn’t get a chance to play. This season, things have been much better.”

Young minds, big league dreams

The irony in the sports specialization trend, according to Joe Baker, a professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science in the Faculty of Health, is that there’s simply no evidence to suggest specialization at a young age improves an athlete’s chance of success, wrote the Vancouver Sun Oct. 16. In fact, the evidence is that the majority of successful athletes come from what he calls a “sampling background,” meaning they have played a variety of sports.

Baker said he’s talked to elite coaches around the world who have told him that athletes who don’t have exposure to a variety of sports and unstructured play lack fundamentals. “They are good at performing motor skills associated with their sport, but they can’t creatively experience or creatively demonstrate something novel.”

“If you look at hockey players and the types of training they do when they are really young, they play a lot of structured hockey. But if you look at the bulk of their time, it’s road hockey, it’s pond hockey, it’s pickup scrimmage games with the neighbourhood kids,” Baker said.

Bilingualism good for the brain

A growing body of research shows that regularly speaking two languages comes with certain types of improved mental performance, wrote Australia’s ABC News Oct. 18 .

“Being able to use two languages and never knowing which one you’re going to use right now rewires your brain,” says  Ellen Bialystok, distinguished research professor in psychology in York University’s Faculty of Health.

“The attentional executive system which is crucial for all higher thought – it’s the most important cognitive piece in how we think – that system seems to be enhanced,” she says.

Bialystok has shown that bilinguals do better at tests that require multitasking, including ones that simulated driving and talking on a phone. “Make no mistake: Everybody is worse,” says Bialystok, “but the bilinguals were less worse.”

Bialystok’s studies focused on people who were truly bilingual. The longer people have spoken multiple languages, the greater the cognitive effects. There are even benefits when languages were taken up at later ages. “We have not seen a cut-off,” she says.

In total, the evidence suggests bilingualism should be better accommodated in monolingual societies, says Bialystok. “When people come from somewhere and join you in your country, don’t make them give up their language.”

On air

  • Saeed Rahnema, political science professor in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, spoke about Canada’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, on Victoria, BC’s CFAX Radio Oct 15.
  • Research by Debra Pepler, distinguished research professor in psychology in York’s Faculty of Health and the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence & Conflict Resolution, was featured on Global Television’s “Global Currents” Oct. 16.