Why the Williams murder evidence must be saved

As the former commander of Canada’s largest air force base was led off Thursday to begin two concurrent sentences of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, the burning question of how best to handle the most disturbing evidence of his actions was put off for another day, wrote The Canadian Press Oct. 22 in a story about the murder trial of former colonel Russell Williams.

James Morton, an adjunct professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law, described a scenario in which prosecutors would one day regret having destroyed vital evidence. “Let’s look ahead 25 years,” Morton said. “(Williams has) survived, he’s been a model prisoner, he’s expressed complete remorse, and we’re now looking at this (elderly) person who’s spent the past 25 years reading the Bible. This video, and the related evidence, is the sort of thing the parole board would look at and say, ‘Yes, we could grant parole, but we’re not going to.’”

The images could also be used to refute an insanity defence should Williams ever try to mount one, Morton added. Appeals are often filed well after the official deadline has expired.

  • Morton also spoke about the argument for keeping the evidence from the Williams case, on Kitchener’s 570News Radio Oct. 22.

Dangerous offender: What the label means

Changes to the Criminal Code of Canada in 2008 require some repeat offenders to prove that they are not a danger to society, instead of putting the burden on the Crown, wrote CBC News online Oct. 21 in a sidebar story on the Russell Williams murder case. That reverse onus makes it easier to designate some repeat offenders as dangerous offenders, which effectively can put them behind bars for life.

Alan Young, a criminal law professor in York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, told CBC News about two problems with the reverse onus system.

The first, he says, is that it carries the risk of capturing the wrong people. The second, and more dangerous one, is that putting the onus on criminals makes it too easy for the court system to declare people dangerous offenders.

“It’s almost imposing an impossibility, because you’re saying to someone: ‘Prove you’re not dangerous,’” Young said, adding that the court system should make sentencing “more of an obstacle course, rather than an assembly line.”

Scientific American reports on York study of Facebook users

Social-networking sites offer users easy ways to present idealized images of themselves, even if those ideals don’t always square with their real-world personalities, wrote Scientific American in its November 2010 issue. Psychology researcher and York grad Soraya Mehdizadeh (BSc Spec.  Hons. ’10) has discovered a way to poke through the offline-online curtain: she has used Facebook to predict a person’s level of narcissism and self-esteem.

Mehdizadeh, who conducted the study as an undergraduate at Toronto’s York University, gained access to the Facebook accounts of 100 college students and measured activities like photo sharing, wall postings and status updates; she also studied how frequently users logged on and how often they remained online during each session. Her findings were published recently in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, the official journal of the International Association of CyberPsychology, Training & Rehabilitation.

Although it seems that Facebook can be used by narcissists to fuel their inflated egos, Mehdizadeh stops short of proclaiming that excessive time spent on Facebook can turn regular users into narcissists. She also notes that social-networking sites might ultimately be found to have positive effects when used by people with low self-esteem or depression. “If individuals with lower self-esteem are more prone to using Facebook,” she says, “the question becomes, ‘Can Facebook help raise self-esteem by allowing patients to talk to each other and help each other in a socially interactive environment?’ I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that people with low self-esteem use Facebook.”

Smitherman holds off releasing donor list

The Rob Ford and Joe Pantalone mayoral campaigns have released their campaign donor lists, but George Smitherman is refusing to divulge his until after the election, wrote the Toronto Star, Oct. 21.

Robert MacDermid, professor of political science in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and an expert on election and party financing, said citizens deserve to know who is giving to which campaigns and Smitherman’s decision to hold off on releasing his donor list does a disservice to voters. “It’s a shame that he’s done that. It’s a statement about how he views strengthening municipal campaign financing, which needs to be strengthened,” MacDermid said. “It makes you wonder where he stands on this issue – and what he’s got to hide.”

While it’s unclear why Smitherman is keeping his list secret for now, MacDermid suggested that poor record-keeping is not likely to blame. “It wouldn’t be sensible to say that it was some sort of shortcoming in their record-keeping. Campaigns keep pretty diligent records of who gives money,” MacDermid said.

  • York University Professor Robert MacDermid, an expert in election finance and donation issues, has found that 43 per cent, or $1.7 million of the $4.1 million raised in campaign funding for elected politicians across Durham, Peel, York and Halton Regions, came from the development industry, wrote the Toronto Star Oct. 21.
  • MacDiarmid also spoke about his research into municipal election campaign funding, on CBC Radio’s “Here & Now” Oct. 21.

York’s Shanker is keynote speaker for education conference

I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed since our first conference in 1997, when about 25 people met in a small classroom at York [University] to talk about the education issues of the day, wrote Charles Pascal about the People for Education’s 14th Annual Conference  in his blog on the TVO Parents website Oct. 21.

This year, the conference is so big we’ve had to move it out of the dining hall at York that has been its home for the last few years, to a larger auditorium at the Schulich School of Business.

This year, I’m looking forward to hearing our keynote speaker Stuart Shanker, [distinguished research professor in philosophy & psychology in York’s Faculty of Health and director of the Milton & Ether Harris Research Initiative]. He’s going to tell us about the marshmallow experiment, where scientists were able to use marshmallows to predict which kids were going to be successful, in school and in life.

Stuart is wonderfully human (for a world-renowned expert); he’s a parent as well as a scientist and I’ve heard him speak a few times. Every time, I’ve learned amazing (and easy-to-understand) things every parent should know – things that will help you bring up your children and things that make a difference in school.

Sexual dancing ‘shockingly prevalent’ among children

York graduate student Lisa Sandlos smiled through her 5-year-old daughter’s first dance performance as the tiny ballerinas in sparkly dresses showed off their pliés, skipped in a circle, and fluttered their arms, wrote the Toronto Star Oct. 22. But her jaw dropped at what followed from the older girls. Seven-year-olds in crop tops and booty shorts did pelvic gyrations, shimmied and strutted across the stage. A preteen caressed herself and dropped to the floor.

Three years later, sexually charged routines for children too young to know their times-tables have become “shockingly prevalent,” says Sandlos, 43, a lifelong dancer, teacher and choreographer.

“What I’ve seen in recitals is disturbing. At 3 and 4 they are bunnies and butterflies, and then at 7, boom, the girls are suddenly doing very erotic movement and dressed in sexualized costumes.”

Sandlos, whose daughter, now 8, and 5-year-old son both dance, says it’s time the community started talking openly about this trend. She’s tackling the topic for her PhD thesis in women’s studies at York University, where she teaches dance and kinesiology. Her thesis will explore the role of mothers in the dance world, and whether they are oblivious or just afraid to rock the boat.

On Friday, she will present preliminary research at a conference of the Motherhood Initiative for Research & Community Involvement.

Sandlos knows it’s a reflection of pop culture. But she worries about the messages that skanky moves and skimpy costumes instil in young female dancers about how they should present themselves, and the way it objectifies girls to the world at large. She’s puzzled why, instead of causing an outcry, the performances are greeted with cheers and trophies.

Poverty eradication group dominates local election in India

The Kudumbashree (The Kerala State Poverty Eradication Mission) which, organizationally, federates the different neighbourhood groups [of India’s Kerala State] has a larger than life presence in these polls, wrote India’s The Hindu Oct. 21 in a story about state elections.

Over 3.7 million women in Kerala are part of this network of women’s groups. (Kerala does not refer to them as ‘self-help’ groups. For one thing that philosophy is seen as narrow and isolating. For another, the program blends state support and dynamic community action. And pushes a vision of a collective and societal drive towards betterment).

Political science Professor Ananya Mukherjee-Reed of York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, points to the innovative approach to food security of these groups. “Some 2,500,000 Kudumbashree women throughout Kerala have come together to form farming collectives which jointly lease land, cultivate it, use the produce to meet their consumption needs and sell the surplus to local markets. This,” she points out, “increases the participation of women in agriculture…(and) ensures that women, as producers, have control over the production, distribution and consumption of food.” They have reached deep within communities.

Pushing drugs

Pharmaceutical companies spend literally billions of dollars promoting their drugs to physicians, wrote The Globe and Mail Oct. 21. And the investment seems to pay off: Doctors end up writing lots of prescriptions for the most heavily advertised products. But that doesn’t mean patients are better off, a new review study indicates.

“If doctors are inundated with advertising from brand name companies, they are more likely to prescribe that brand name, regardless of whether it’s best for the patient,” said study co-author Dr. Joel Lexchin of York University’s School of Health Policy & Management in the Faculty of Health. He estimates that drug companies spend between $2.4-billion and $4.75-billion annually on promotion in Canada.

It’s no surprise that alienation is heading east

A good news-bad news report from the Calgary-based Canada West Foundation struck a happy chord Thursday, declaring western alienation is no more, wrote the Vancouver Sun Oct. 22.

The bad news: Eastern alienation – specifically in Ontario and Atlantic Canada – is growing.

More bad news: Western alienation is “a permanent part of the Canadian condition,” bound to resurface at some point.

The foundation’s nine-page report, titled “Whither Western Alienation? Shifting Patterns of Western Canadian Discontent with the Federal Government”, bases its findings on polling done by York University researchers in 2004, 2006 and 2008, covering a period when government in Ottawa went from Liberal to Conservative hands.

On air

  • Paul Axelrod, professor in York’s Faculty of Education and an organizer of the 16th biennial conference of the Canadian History of Education Association, spoke about the event on CBC Radio’s "Metro Morning” Oct. 21
  • James Gillies, professor emeritus in the Schulich School of Business at York University, spoke about BHP’s hostile bid for Saskatchewan’s Potash Corporation, on CBC Radio, Oct. 21.
  • Jennifer Birch, course director in York’s Department of Anthropology in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, spoke about a subdivision in Stouffville that was once the location of a Huron village, on Rogers Cable Television Oct. 20.