Ex-prostitute, law student – a success story stifled

Wendy Babcock wore a perpetual smile, wrote the Toronto Star Aug. 11. It was a defence mechanism. "Without it, I think I’d be crying the whole time," she said, smiling, in 2009. "I never wanted to show anyone pain, so I tried to show them normality."

Babcock was, of course, anything but normal: She was a homeless teenage prostitute, who became a prominent activist and then a student at York University’s prestigious Osgoode Hall Law School. Her astonishing success story inspired thousands; she spoke, unapologetically, of aspiring to become prime minister.

She was found dead in her home on Tuesday. She was 32. A police spokesperson said there were no signs of foul play.

After she graduated from George Brown College, a supervisor at Street Health urged her to apply to law school. She was one of only 10 students in her Osgoode class of 290 to get in without the university credits usually required. "I’d thought about law school, I just never thought I could do it," she said. "It would be like considering being a movie star."

She was plagued by self-doubt, she confessed, unsure she could compete with her well-schooled classmates even though she had scored well on her LSAT. Yet she cast herself as fearless, sometimes interrupting professors to register her opinion.

When noted criminal law Professor Alan Young said "prostitute" during a first-semester lecture, Babcock, sitting in the front row and taking notes on an unlined piece of paper, her hair streaked pink, nonchalantly interjected to correct him. "Sex worker," she said.

Young knew Babcock before she enrolled in his class: She testified in his court challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws. She told her story to high school and university students, community groups, filmmakers, and whomever else asked – or didn’t.

She was soon to begin the third year of her four-year law school program. A friend said she had been working on a memoir that was to be released upon her graduation.

Valerie Scott, a leader with the advocacy group Sex Professionals of Canada, clashed with Babcock when Babcock was a SPOC member and had not spoken to her in several years. But she called Babcock "an inspiration to sex workers everywhere," and she said she was "reeling" from her death.

"She could’ve done so much," Scott said.

  • To her friends, Wendy Babcock was a fierce and passionate activist with a joyful sense of humour that defined her, but inside she suffered in silence, wrote Xtra Aug. 11.

Before becoming a student at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, Babcock was a homeless teenaged sex worker. For the past several years she has passionately advocated on behalf of sex workers and has been a prominent voice for trans rights across Canada.

Known for her unwavering compassion and patience, Babcock worked tirelessly on the front lines with some of Toronto’s most marginalized street people, says Tori Scout, one of Babcock’s close friends and chosen family.

But a life filled with struggle took its toll and Babcock suffered invisibly, Scout says. The pair met while attending George Brown College’s Assaulted Women’s and Children’s Counsellor Advocate Program (AWCCA). “She just couldn’t take it anymore. She had a 24-hour support system around her at the time of her death, but it wasn’t enough.”

Her friends call her death an enormous loss to Toronto.

“Wendy was a beautiful person who has been suffering for a long time due to abuse, poverty and the trauma of losing her son,” says Scout. “This woman was a fierce fighter. Her strength is now holding us all together.”

Babcock was forced to surrender her son, Korin, when she was homeless in 2003, Scout says. “Her son will find out someday how much she loved him,” she says.

Scout says the community as a whole failed Babcock. She was continually denied any information about her son, who is in the care of the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), and devoted her life to getting him back, even giving up sex work. Scout says, “She would have done anything to get him back.”

Close friend Morgan Page, who is the trans community services coordinator at the 519 Church St. Community Centre, says Babcock had just completed the draft of a memoir to coincide with her graduation. Page says Babcock’s friends will now work to have the memoir published in her honour.

  • This news is also a tragic blow to the Toronto legal community, which badly needs the experience and perspective of people like Wendy Babcock, wrote Todd Harrison in the online blog of Precedent magazine. From all indications, she was poised to be a formidable voice for people who are too often voiceless – in the justice system as well as the mainstream media. We need more lawyers like Babcock almost certainly would have been. I sincerely hope that, by the light she cast during her too-short life, we’ll find some.
  • Babcock’s story was also discussed on CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning” and "As It Happens" Aug. 11 and reported on CBC.ca.

BlackBerry dragged into UK conflict

As Britain grapples with widespread unrest in its cities, Canada’s Research in Motion is being dragged into the fray as BlackBerry-toting rioters use the smartphone’s instant messaging service to co-originate their looting, wrote The Canadian Press Aug. 11.

The Waterloo-based BlackBerry-maker said it feels for those impacted by the violent riots and has taken steps to help police. "We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can," Patrick Spence, managing director of global sales and regional marketing said in a statement, adding the company would "co-operate fully" with Britain’s Home Office and UK police forces.

It’s that assurance of full co-operation – the extent of which hasn’t been detailed by RIM – that’s raising eyebrows among observers.

"They have to make absolutely clear what is their policy regarding dealing with governments on access to communication," said Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business. "They actually have to have a policy and they have to tell people." The BlackBerry messaging service, or BBM, is free between users of the device and is encrypted, guaranteeing security.

In the past, RIM has been vague on public details regarding government access to user data, most recently when faced with threats from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to cut off BlackBerry services unless concessions on access were made.

In Britain’s case, if it surfaces that RIM bends on user privacy and gives UK authorities unprecedented access to data, it could lead to serious problems, said Middleton.

"(The use of BBM in the riots) may not hurt their brand in the UK directly, but it is going to raise questions from Canadian government to RIM about what their policy is here and I suspect a lot of other governments," said Middleton. "The heat will be on them."

  • Middleton’s comments about RIM’s dilemma were also heard on numerous local radio stations across Canada.

Crash will affect all eventually: Schulich prof

Although the current crisis won’t mean much to most non-investors in the near future, it will eventually hit home for all workers, whether that be through Canada Pension Plan (CPP), the nation’s slow economic growth or a poor employment market, York University Schulich School of Business economics Professor Perry Sadorsky said, in a story in the Aurora Banner Aug. 10.

"Everyone, at some point, will be affected because CPP invests in markets," he said. "This means the pool of money in the CPP will not be growing as quickly as projected, so, in 10 years, there may be less money than expected. In that case, unless cash is injected through other means, people will still get their cheques, but they could be lower."

In the wider context, Sadorsky said Canadians shouldn’t worry so much about debt problems in the United States and Europe, [but] rather lower economic growth for Canada, the US or any developed economy. "If shares slow, that means that wealth is reduced and that affects people’s ability to consume," the Richmond Hill financial market specialist said. "When consumption goes down, the economy is affected and employment numbers can fall." A poor economy in the US, our biggest trading partner, will also have a negative effect on business, he added. Although Canada is only "one step" above a recession, Sadorsky said he doesn’t believe the country is headed in that direction.

Instead, he said the country will likely suffer "slow and sluggish" economic growth at about 1 or 2 per cent during the next few years. That is about half of the nation’s economic growth rate, before the first financial crisis hit in 2008. "In some sense, we haven’t worked through what happened in 2008-2009," he said. "After that, central banks made it easy for commercial banks to borrow money, but that round of cash has completely dried up. So we could have seen this coming."

Church to coach Canadian women’s hockey team at upcoming events

Dan Church will serve as head coach of the Canadian women’s hockey team at two upcoming tournaments, wrote The Canadian Press Aug. 11.

Hockey Canada says he’ll be on the bench for the upcoming Eight Nations tournament in Finland and the Four Nations Cup this November in Sweden.

Church is entering his eighth season as head coach of the York University Lions women’s team. Doug Derraugh of Cornell University and former star player Danielle Goyette from the University of Calgary will join Church as assistant coaches.

Trade talks with Honduras draw fire

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues his Latin America tour amid global market chaos, he is making stops in countries he hopes will expand Canada’s trade and make it less dependent on the turbulent US economy, wrote the Toronto Star Aug. 11.

On Friday he lands in Honduras, bringing a free-trade agreement closer to completion. But critics say it is an unlikely choice for partnership with Canada.

"It’s about consolidating allies and economic interests," says political science course director Todd Gordon of York University [Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies], an expert on Honduras.

Gordon said Ottawa has used its support for the Lobo government to seek access for its mining and business executives, and bring about legislative changes that would benefit them. "The political connections have been strengthened and that’s now bearing fruit, consolidated by Harper’s visit," he said. "The economic benefits are investment and profits to be made from cheap labour and resources."

Up Spencer Creek looking for signs of life

York University Professor Roberto Quinlan [Faculty of Science & Engineering] waits with bated breath, in hopes 23-year-old McMaster grad Amanda DeMedeiros finds a crayfish, wrote the Hamilton Spectator Aug. 11, in a story about Spencer Creek. They’re one of the best indicators of the health of the creek after a 2007 blaze dumped more than 10 tonnes of insecticide powder into the waterway, killing thousands of fish in the Dundas creek and in Cootes Paradise.

"The best indicator would be fish," says Quinlan. "Crayfish are the next best thing."

In one of the most basic and cheap studies, Quinlan takes samples at six locations up and down stream of the Biedermann Packaging warehouse, the site of the 2007 fire. "By sampling, we get some sort of fixture of what’s happened in the last few weeks and months," says Quinlan, a Dundas resident and biology professor. "It looks like there have been some good recovery."

But Quinlan’s just scratching the surface. He hopes the grunt work he’s done every August since 2008 will lead to more in-depth studies, something he feels the area needs. Right now, he can count on the invertebrate benthos (insect larvae that are the main food source for fish) as bio-monitors to the health of Spencer Creek.

He says the reason the Ministry of the Environment never found any pesticides in the water just months after the spill was the fast pace of the creek, which in heavy rains turns into a torrent, washing water from the escarpment into Cootes Paradise and Hamilton Harbour.  "There was a real scouring effect," says Quinlan. "You have to think of it as a toilet bowl. Someone’s gone to the bathroom, you flush the toilet, you see gleaming white porcelain again. But are you going to drink out of that toilet bowl?"

Fingerstyle festival guru sees the practical advantages in guitar competition

Even though he and Del Vezeau hatched the Canadian Guitar Festival and Fingerstyle Competition in his Cannington living room eight years ago, Canadian guitar wizard Don Ross isn’t really a fan of the competition, wrote Frontenac EMC Aug. 11.

"Competing doesn’t appeal to me, to be quite honest," he said backstage at this year’s festival. "I’m not really in favour of any kind of artistic competition."

But, Ross knows the business of music and the value of being able to put "winner of…" on promotional material and liner notes. "It looks great on a CD," he said. "And I’ve taken advantage of that, including using it to secure grants for musical projects."

And so, the annual competition is a way of giving back, providing exposure and credentials to up-and-coming musicians.

Ross has done his share of competing however, and, if pressed, will speak proudly and fondly of the winning Walnut Valley Festival, which doubles as the US Fingerstyle Championships. "I’m the only person to ever win it twice," he said with a sly grin.

All that aside, Ross does have a few other credentials to trot out when needed. He has a bachelor of fine arts in music composition from York University, numerous theatre musical scores including The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, and 14 solo albums.

Woman wants to return, help community

Janine Manning said she hopes one day to return to Cape Croker and put her knowledge of environmental politics and law to community use, wrote The Owen Sound Sun Times Aug. 11.

She’s one of nine local native students who received scholarships recently from The First Nations People’s Scholarship Fund. It’s one of 67 endowment funds overseen by the Community Foundation Grey Bruce.

"I see my community having a lot of potential for ecotourism," the 31-year-old York University environmental studies student said in an interview last week. She noted a rare alvar, or expanse of flat limestone with diverse vegetation, would be ideal to showcase for tourists at the Cape "and it’s not protected."

Manning received $1,500 from the foundation’s scholarship fund this year, the third year she received its help.

She is taking an honours degree and is considering attending grad school or law school next, so her plans to return to Cape Croker aren’t set. She’s also a single parent raising a two-year-old son and would like him to know Cape Croker, where she attended kindergarten, moved away, then returned to attend Wiarton High School in 1994-1995. She continues to have ties to the area.

Liberals eye hard-hearted fraud policy

A study by Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Janet Mosher and University of Toronto Professor Joe Hermer found that welfare fraud, although "characterized as pervasive," was actually "exceptionally low" at the time, wrote QMI Agency Aug. 11, in a story about provincial Liberals’ campaign strategy of attacking the Conservatives’ hard-hearted policies on welfare fraud that date back to the era of former premier Mike Harris.

"Judges frequently describe the accused’s poverty as being of (their) own making, and will rarely find any…compelling personal circumstances as mitigating considerations," the study noted.

"Simply being on social assistance results in one being positioned as a penal object in a climate of moral condemnation, surveillance, suspicion and penalty. This criminalization is particularly gendered in that the majority of people on social assistance are women, and the majority of them are single parents."

Rumblings from the wonderful world of off-roading

On an entirely different topic, I always enjoy a quiet chuckle when I hear this province’s small but vocal anti-ATV faction expounding on a sport of which they know nothing, other than the fact that engines make noise at times, and in particular about how riders should just get off their fat butts and get some exercise, wrote columnist James Foster in Moncton, NB’s Times & Transcript Aug 12.

We already know how great the sport is for rural economies, and now science has shown that it’s also good for the body and the soul. Professor Norman Gledhill and his team at York University’s Physical Activity and Chronic Disease Unit of the Faculty of Health studied the intensity of exercise a rider receives while ATVing. They found that 14 per cent of an ATV ride is intense enough to provide aerobic fitness, on a par with "rock climbing and alpine skiing." The study found that wheeling leads to increased upper-body fitness, better physical endurance and bestows the rider with measurable psycho-social benefits such as the ability to cope better with stress.

That’s no surprise to those of us who do it.

Timmins native returns for dance camp

Camp Bickell is partnering with Timmins native Kate Nankervis [BFA Spec. Hons.’08] to launch Dance Northern Ontario Summer Camp, from Aug. 22 to 26, wrote the Timmins Daily Press Aug. 12.

Since leaving the North, Nankervis studied at York University’s Dance Program in Toronto as well at NYU in New York City. She has a BFA in dance. Her professional career has taken her across the globe as a dancer, teacher and choreographer throughout Canada, the US, the UK and, most recently, Brazil.

On air

  • Daniel Drache, professor in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, spoke about the riots in London, England, on CP24-TV Aug. 10.
  • Gus Van Harten, professor in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, spoke about the latest dispute over softwood lumber between Canada and the US, on CBC Radio in Kelowna, BC, Aug. 11.