When I first heard of the Quebec governments plan to raise tuition fees by $1625 a year over the next five years, I had a fairly indifferent opinion. After all, I had never pursued an education at an institution of higher learning and I had been out of school for close to twenty years.

To be honest I never gave the situation the attention that it deserved. I figured at the time that a small hike in tuition fees was probably warranted, I even thought that any protest stemming from the hikes would likely die down soon after it started. Clearly I should have been more inquisitive; if I had been I wouldn’t have been wrong on both accounts.

The student strike and protest is now entering its fourth month, they have spawned more than 160 protests in 72 days in Montreal alone. The protests have now garnered international attention including coverage on CNN and Al Jazeera. In my (new found) opinion, the actions of the students are completely justified.

This whole state of affairs revolves around the Quebec government’s rising debt, but instead of raising taxes on corporations or the wealthy, Premier Jean Charest prefers to take it out of the pockets of middle class students. It’s no wonder the students have used the 99% movement as motivation for the cause.

An education is probably the single most important gift a society can offer its people outside of healthcare, but even without tuition fees, college and university can be damn expensive. Students still have to pay for lab fees, books, housing, food, etc. even with a part time job it’s next to impossible to leave school without racking up debt.

Jean Charest with Education Minister Line Beauchamp

It was only a generation or two ago when the average student could attend university, hold a part time job at MuckDonalds and be virtually debt free when he entered the work force. Students are aware that those days are disappearing quickly and are trying to reverse the present course.

I believe there are two things driving the youth of Quebec to protest so loudly: principal and fear.

The students believe that the protesting of the government tuition hike is a matter of principal. We live in one of the wealthiest developed nations on earth, why should they be punished for pursuing a higher education? Quebecers are proud of their low cost, high grade education system and would prefer to mirror the Scandinavian model where tuition fees are nonexistent.

The trepidation I referred to is a fear the students have of the Quebec educational system slowing moving in the direction of the United States and the rest of Canada. In the US, total student debt has risen above a trillion dollars, more than the country’s total credit card debt. The average tuition fee for a public university is roughly $8000 (four times more than Quebec), but the average total cost of a four year program is close to $28 000 a year.

I’ve heard critics of the protests calling the students “unfocused,” “deadbeats” and “moochers,” simple responses from people not in the students’ position. If they’re deadbeats they wouldn’t be in school, if they’re unfocused they wouldn’t be protesting 24/7 and they aren’t mooching anything more than the person using his or her Medicare Card.

So what is the solution? The students are not about to pack it up and call it a semester. The question I have to ask is who, aside from the students, benefit the most from their education? The answer is simple; the people that hire them afterward. No one profits more from an educated populace than the companies who hire them.

An educated man can lead a good life with a good job, but chances are he’ll never be wealthy; he will be far too busy making the company or corporation wealthy. It seems only logical to me that the people profiting off of this man’s education should be the ones helping to pay his fees.

Don’t give in boys and girls.

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Access to free education ought to be a fundamental human right. Across Canada, students have almost free public education up to the end of the secondary cycle, with some provinces offering subsidized options for post-secondary studies.

Because we are a consumerist nation, because we believe paying for something is innately better than not, our society feels it would be inappropriate not to pay, something, for post-secondary education. After all, we paid nothing to go to the public primary and secondary sector and that got us nothing.

Over the years, our universities have ballooned in population while twentysomethings enrolled live the high consumption lifestyles of the modern student. The universities expand and market themselves aggressively so as to stimulate growth, in turn providing self-sustaining economic engines.

Ask yourself what four years in university will get you, aside from the debt. The modern corporate university is as much a pyramid scheme as it is an odd kind of casino.

These days, an undergraduate degree isn’t likely to get you very far by itself and the university has no obligation to provide you with the skills to go out and get precisely what you want career-wise. At the same time, corporations and conglomerates have no obligation to invest any amount of time or money in training you for a career in the establishment, as this is now more or less what a BA signifies in the professional world.

It isn’t your specific discipline that matters, not nearly as much as the university degree simply states you have a basic level of professional competency. This is what a high-school diploma used to mean in our society.

Thirty years ago, universities had significantly smaller student populations, with tuition and book costs (for full time studies) not exceeding $1000 per year. Associated costs have not kept pace with inflation and the university degree, for a variety of reasons, has  largely been de-valued during this time.

Compounding the issue is the fact that the current workforce has little choice but to continue working longer, as a result of the major economic crisis, so recent graduates and current student have even fewer options. And with regards to our collective debt, well, we’re told not to worry about it, that we’ll eventually get good jobs to pay it off.

Public education in Canada has been generally neglected, both by successive provincial and federal governments and our society is no longer willing to appropriately fund the primary and secondary sectors.

This is true across Canada. As an example: in order to pay down the massive debt and deficit of the Mulroney administration, Chretien and Martin cancelled federal transfer payments intended to be used by provincial education and healthcare ministries. As such, hospitals across Canada became overcrowded and the public sector education system took a major beating in terms of funding.

Private schools and school boards have been growing in number ever since 1993 as the public lost faith in the public system, which is supposed to set the social standard for education. This in turn led to a nationwide net loss of faith in what a high school diploma could provide. This is an untenable, financially unsound situation for a nation wishing to maintain its high living standards.

Québec figured out a solution to the problem of how to provide ‘free’ social advancement for all citizens regardless of class or region of birth back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As part of the Quiet Revolution, the Quebec Liberal Party established the University of Québec system – a series of public post-secondary institutions throughout the province providing low-cost, highly accessible university education. In addition, the CEGEP system was created, providing a college diploma in general or professional studies.

These two public, province-wide systems were intended to do two things. First, provide a public, low-cost alternative to private or for-profit post-secondary educational institutions. Second, to assist in transforming Quebec society to build a much larger middle class, encourage our culture and ultimately to build a better society. I think the plan worked very well.

The corporatization of the campus and commercializiation of the student class, in Québec inasmuch as anywhere in Canada, is a direct threat to the publically-funded means to social advancement our post-secondary system is designed to provide. So do students in Québec have every right to be upset with any increase to tuition costs, absolutely – it is a threat to a major societal achievement that has helped build our very society.

We’re more progressively minded as a direct result of our investment in education and this benefits our society on the whole. And we should be more sensitive to the needs of students, because they are generally living on the margins of society as is and aren’t being adequately prepared to enter the workforce. What does this say about our society as a whole?

In the end, it is the public primary and secondary sector that needs the greatest investment. We should ensure that the basic level of education is higher, and thus should endeavour to make the highschool diploma more valuable. We should also seek to increase the value of the CEGEP diploma and increase the number of vocational and professional programs offered at these institutions.

Doing so would decrease the number of people flooding into the university system, which in turn would allow for a general decrease in the cost of tuition. Not to mention that we desperately need to ensure the sanctity and high societal value placed on university degrees, and by extension get people out of universities if they have no reason to be there other than the notion that it is a social expectation. We cannot allow the modern university to become a daycare for twenty-somethings.

And the Québec student movement would be wise to utilize strikes, demonstrations and the like as a last resort measure, because such action is otherwise overly disruptive and secures no additional public support. What I’ve seen over the last ten years is a degeneration of public manifestations of social discontent into an overly aggressive and anti-social free-for-all of street theatre.

More discipline ought to be exercised, and the student leadership needs to seek broad public, perhaps even pan-Canadian support. The students of Québec should not try to fight this battle by themselves, but unless the leadership is willing to look for national solidarity they won’t be able to make the case that this is an issue of significant societal importance.

Blocking bridges and traffic is something you do when negotiations have proven completely fruitless, and then the movement needs to depend on public support for their aggressive actions and yes, blocking traffic and bridges is aggressive, it is not passive.

* Photos by Phyllis Papioulas, for more please visit our Facebook page

When I started writing this post about the dying state of handwriting, I originally intended to write it out in the black journal book that I keep for occasional note-taking. After a few days of procrastinating, I went back to my thoughts on the page.

As I looked down at the chicken scratch I composed the day before I realized that it was completely illegible! How could this be? How could years of practicing handwriting still produce a doctor’s note full of cryptically indecipherable scribbles?

This is just one of the reasons why handwriting has gone out of style for me and why I have turned to the laptop and iPod for taking notes, but I’m not the only one. It seems that the whole world is turning its back on handwriting.

Technology has really put a vice on handwriting; some administrators in the US educational system already consider handwriting dead.

In today’s classes, cursive is used irregularly with the exception a student’s individual note taking. Most teachers, when asking for handwritten work, will ask for printed fonts so it can be read clearly.

Since the 1920s, printed letters have dominated cursive, which is becoming more and more obsolete with the emerging technologies of mass media. Many parents would rather see the subject just simply disappear from the curriculum taught to their children so they can focus on more important subjects, like typing.

As more schools turn electronic the focus has been directed to early year engagement with typing. Think how fast children will be able to type, having all their educational lives interfaced with computers. Computer illiteracy will be a thing of the past. But eventually, most children will no longer know how to use cursive or even print handwriting.

Many in the field of education have been prophesying the death of handwriting for years, and yet, people still write in books, keep journals, students in universities still have to hand in written documents during exams. The great changeover was already suppose to have happened fifteen years ago and yet it still hasn’t come to pass. But why not?

Well, for one thing, old habits die hard. Even though I can’t read my old handwriting I still enjoy the organic quality of writing on paper, the intimacy of being as far from Facebook as possible!!

Another reason is the increased popularity of digital pens and handwriting apps. PenultimateWritepad and Note-Taker have all grown in popularity since the iPad came out. Now you can easily transcribe your handwriting to print at the click of a button. This is amazing for people who just can’t quit cursive!

Also, this generation is the first to live its entire life within the scope of the computer. Think how future generations will use computers comparatively to those who only had a partial engagement with them as children. These days, three year olds can use cellphones! So, eventually, the human experience with education will be synonymous with computer usage. By the next generation, the change will have occurred.

The printed page would forever change once computers were more predominantly used in schools. Even in high school I remember the out-of-date Apple II series computers we had, a few years of kids were trained on these archaic pieces. I remember giving up on cursive around the same time. I just never bothered after teachers complained about my handwriting.

While my computer training effectively helped me to type, all the cursive training I had was not so long lasting. I remember making sure the letters were at the appropriate size and that I was able to reproduce the calligraphic style. It was tough work, well it was for me at least. But I don’t feel bad about learning it, I just feel bad that I might have been part of the last generation that did.

As handwriting becomes less important, do our penmanship skills suffer? And might this have a detrimental effect on learning? After all, we have been writing down stuff for thousands of years and before that we used cave graffiti to tell our stories.

It seems schools have already decided to cut out handwriting curriculum, but it might be a little to early to claim handwriting’s death, especially since many studies have shown handwriting to be beneficial to the educational process.

An article recently published in the Sun Sentinel claims that children that have better handwriting also do better in school. Perhaps we shouldn’t write handwriting’s obituary quite so soon. There is still a lot of benefit that arises from calligraphy skills, after all didn’t Steve Jobs study calligraphy in university?

What if we had the technology to no longer need to write anything? Would we no longer train our young minds to write? No. Of course not!

Just because we can get rid of a curriculum doesn’t mean we should; writing is an art after all, it trains the mind and keeps us sharp.

Now if we can only figure out how to decipher my chicken scratch…

During a campaign stop in New Hampshire the other day, Rick Santorum said “What elitist snobbery out of this man!” referring to Barack Obama’s statement that every child should go to college by 2020. I have no idea why Santorum is opposed to giving every student a chance to go to college as it is central to improving our standard of living and our economy.

The United States workforce is presently undereducated and overpaid. In order for the economy to grow long term the value of the workforce must rise or we will continue to see a decline in wages. The only way to increase a worker’s worth is, of course, through education.

Contrary to popular opinion, money is not the problem. The United States spends more than $10,000 a year per student, more than any other country, but students are continuously ranked in the middle of the pack of the 65 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. In 2009 the U.S. was ranked 30th in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading.

So what is the problem? For starters, half of all teachers in the United States graduate in the bottom third of their class. In essence, you have the uneducated teaching the uneducated; not the best formula for success. Teachers are also forced to teach by following a curriculum that does not enable students to develop creativity or solve problems.

Somewhere, the American "Head Start" program turned into "No Child Left Behind"

Another issue in the U.S. is the high rate of poverty. The richest 10% are among the best educated in the world while the poorest of the nation rarely graduate high school. Private schools work great for those who can pay for them. Private schools can afford the best teachers, the best technology and have the best learning conditions. The key is to raise the education level of the poor while maintaining the status quo for the rich. Therefore, the question is how do we improve public schools?

The best way to solve the problem is to look at the countries that have the best results and then try and emulate their success. Finland has been ranked first in science for the past 10 years, and has been in the top five in reading and math during that same span. South Korea has been first in reading and also has success in science and math in the past decade.

Finland and South Korea are tops in the world in education and both are great examples to follow, however both countries are vastly different in their approach. In South Korea, the school year is on average 27 days longer than an average American school year. In fact, a typical South Korean student spends an extra 2 years in school before going to college.

The average school day is also much longer; most students attend learning sessions after school that can last until 10:00PM. There are actually police roaming the streets to ensure these late night teachings don’t go beyond the government imposed ten o’clock deadline.

The biggest problem with the South Korean system (a problem even President Lee Myung-bak admits) is that parents put enormous pressure on their students to succeed and the result is an extremely high suicide rate among teenagers.

In contrast, we have Finland. The Finnish school system starts at age seven, two years after North Americans. The school days are shorter and there is far less pressure on students, yet they have more success than South Korea. How is this possible?

Teaching is one of the most fought after jobs in the country. Finland holds teachers in high regard, on par with doctors and they get paid as such. All Finnish teachers are required to have a master’s degree and of those that acquire one, only the best are chosen. Only the smartest of the country are permitted to teach.

Just as important, there is no standardized testing in the country; this allows teachers to choose their own textbooks and follow their own education plan. The development of creativity is of the highest priority in Finland as they prefer to teach people how to think and question things rather than forcing students to memorize places and dates.

Clearly there are lessons to be learned here; both South Korea and Finland have better results and they do it cheaper. The American government currently awards funding to schools based on performance, this strategy allows the good schools to thrive and the failing schools to shut down. Regardless, this policy has led to wide spread cheating by teachers who raise the marks of their students in order to receive more funding. For teachers in a thriving school it could mean a higher salary, in a failing school it could mean they get to keep their job. In any case, the students are the ones who suffer.

I’ve been told repeatedly that the reason behind the poor performance of the United States educational system is that the government would prefer to keep it that way. After all, an uneducated public is less likely to think for itself and question those who hold them back. I find this theory rather short sighted; people are just as likely to rebel when they have nothing left to lose than when they are smart enough to know when their rights are being abused.

Education is the key to prosperity; always has been. If you look at the countries that are tops in education, you’ll find countries where the economy is doing just fine. Coincidence?

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I’ve made some bad choices in my day. As the summer rolls around again, I’m reminded of them.

There are some jobs I shouldn’t have taken, things I shouldn’t have said, purchases I shouldn’t have made, haircuts I should have avoided and several guys I shouldn’t have dated.

There is one mistake, however, that rankles me more than the others. I went to a for-profit college.

Oh, I tried traditional university first, and while it wasn’t for me, I don’t regret the time or money I spent there nearly as much. It’s the for-profit school that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

Is there a worse feeling then knowing that you’ve been taken for a fool?

I bought into the post-secondary myth with a vengeance. In five years I’ve tried four programs at three different schools. And at the end of the day I have to say that province-run Universities try to do their best for you. They want you to succeed and give you every resource they can. They have their problems (that’s another post or you can read this one on the student union at Concordia) but they aren’t evil.

For profit schools, on the other hand…

A for-profit post-secondary institution is pretty much what it sounds like; a school run independent of provincial legislation on a money-making basis. And do they ever make their money.

I did one year of Hotel Management at {CENSORED TO PROTECT THE GUILTY]} College, and it was passable. Barely. I was frustrated enough with the poor quality, lack of organization and lackadaisical teaching that I decided to switch out to one of their on-line programs; Multi-media techniques. The admin rep promised me cutting edge technology, convenient on-line access to teachers and resources, and industry standard, applicable knowledge. Best of all, they promised I’d never, ever have to do group work. “Sounds good!” I said, pulling out my chequebook. “Sign me up!”

I’m two thirds done the one year program now and I can’t decide if I’m more disgusted with the school for creating (and selling) such a dismal program or myself for believing what they told me, but the on-line course materials are 7 years old (I have a class on scanning. Scanning!) the servers are constantly being overwhelmed, the interface is glitchy, the teachers are your usual mixed bag (fair enough) and you can’t for love or money get a schedule until 72 hours before the semester begins. It’s disappointing to say the least. For an uncomfortably accurate description, check out this comic by Ruben Bolling

For-profit schools, particularly those that offer classes on-line are becoming notorious for unethical recruitment processes, inflated claims about job placement upon graduation and terribly low-quality learning materials. As of yet, this problem isn’t as bad in Canada as it is in the states, because many schools do take some federal money, but let me tell you the overhead is low, really low, for these on-line programs.

I don’t doubt that there are high-quality, well-run online or for profit school out there, I just think you should think long and hard before paying fees to an institution whose bottom line is more important than your education, and who doesn’t have to answer to anyone in terms of quality.

Most of these institutions make their money and maintain their enrollment from two classes of students: adults finding themselves in careers that require a piece of paper of some kind to advance more effectively, and students who for whatever reason didn’t qualify for traditional post-secondary education. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what kind of potential there is for damage here.

For any of you out there in internetland who are considering going back to school, or trying your hand at a for-profit be careful. Once your tuition is paid there’s no getting it back (the contracts are pretty iron-clad and I’m pretty sure they keep expensive lawyers locked in a broom closet just waiting for someone to try and wiggle out of them) and there is almost no guarantee that the school will live up to any of its promises. Going into debt sucks make sure you’ve got a good reason to do it.

I’ve got one semester to go and I just want to finish my year, get my receipt and never go to school again. Happy summer vacation.

Everyone’s heard about how Montreal universities are underfunded and that the quality of students’ education is suffering. These issues are as established in public dialogue as an aged spaghetti stain, permanent and unforgiving, and monopolizing all the attention. Forgive me for being saucy, but I’ve got news for you. Along with the saying that universities are “drastically underfunded”, I just discovered a whole layer of bullshit underlying the Montreal Chamber of Commerce’s suggestion to increase Quebec university tuition.

Before we get into it, ask yourself this question: Who do you want to believe? The student member of a non-profit organization that believes education and health and social services should be funded by strong government programs, or a press release detailing a rational yet self-interested agenda on behalf of the business world?

I’d like to introduce Erik Chevrier, member of the Free Education Montreal organization, versus a slew of communications representatives from the Montreal business community. You may think I’m framing this issue a little lopsided, but honestly, does anyone else dare say we should raise tuition fees other than the Montreal Chamber of Commerce? It’s okay, they can say it. They’re the big boys of business; they get away with much more than just corporate tax breaks.

Before we make any more unfounded statements describing the state of our schools and our student loans and whatnot, let’s look at some facts together. The Montreal Chamber of Commerce is an interest group acting in the Government arena on behalf of Montreal businesses that published a press release with the ambitious idea of raising tuition fees to rectify a situation that everyone seems to be familiar with: the underfunding of universities. “The principle associations that represent businesses in Quebec ask the government to bring education to the table as a priority”. Their proposal asks for a tuition increase of $1000 per year over a three year period for newly enrolled students.

Even though the Chamber press release reassures its reader that the student loans system would be adjusted accordingly over this period of increased tuition (join me in a sarcastic “hurrah”), this plan implies further financial responsibility on the students, whether it be immediately upon entering school, or when they start paying back their student loans.

On the other side of the spectrum, Free Education Montreal (FreeEdMtl) is a non-profit organization that treats education as a societal right and responsibility. The organization opposes increases in tuition rates and “encourages students and other community members to think critically about education, the role and responsibilities of educators and students”. On occasions such as recent governmental and Chamber talks, FreeEdMtl brings together a variety of groups to participate in protests like the one held this past weekend.

Chevrier from FreeEdMtl was the last person I expected to say that “treating our universities as underfunded is problematic”. He makes some great points, first by stating that university roles are shifting away from providing education to providing for business needs. I mean, tell me that Concordia’s beautiful $118.5-million MB building on De Maisonneuve and Guy Street was an education need and not a budgetary ego trip. Concordia magazine says that the university’s “brand equity will be bolstered” and the business school’s “top-flight facilities are on par with its high-calibre academic standing”. Couldn’t they just have bought a fleet of mustard yellow 4×4’s and circled the McGill campus if they’re so concerned about whose dick is the biggest? It would’ve at least been more cost-effective.

In any case, that’s money that was destined to education that isn’t technically missing; it’s gone missing. The Chamber’s attempt to make students pay for “insufficient university funding” is a perpetration of an endless cycle depicting the mismanagement of budgets by the few people who control them at the top of the business and education hierarchies. In Chevrier’s words, the powerful few at the top “put their efforts into making people in lower income brackets pay for health care and their social services…” to cover the costs of those just-plain-old extravagant spending priorities and mistakes.

These extravagant and “boo-boo” types of spending are where all the money is going, according to Chevrier. While Concordia
University was building the beautiful new MB building, the university payed out a $700 000 good-bye fee to the university’s president Claude Lajeunesse upon his mutual agreement with the Concordia Board of Governors to step down from presidency in 2007. So, the universities being underfunded isn’t necessarily the foundational issue at hand; it’s that the administration spends wastefully on things that could be avoided, or at least put back into the education system.

So, in the words of Wyclef Jean, “If I was president, I’d get elected on Friday/ get a new condo on Saturday/ fired on Sunday/ then get a hefty severance package on Monday”.

The Chamber’s desire to stay out of the financial wallet-shed is fairly transparent given all the love and attention they give to their justifications for not contributing to the tuition-increase cause. What they really want to say in their press release full of lovely syntax is that Quebec students contribute less to their own education than any other student in Canada; tuition in Quebec is approximately $3000 less per year than other Canadian universities.

…So, punish those Quebec students! Make them pay!

Wait a second. There’s some holes in the Chamber’s spin.

Chevrier puts it best: “Justifying that we’re really privileged and that it should be removed so that we’re paying the Canadian average is a really strange argument. They’re saying that university education will mean more to students if it costs more”. Making education more expensive doesn’t necessarily make it more meaningful or more worthwhile, but it definitely affects those who have trouble affording it in lower income brackets. “They’re basically proposing more loans instead of subsidizing education… they’re expecting students to come out of school with an even deeper burden.”

Let’s not forget that Quebec residents pay the highest taxes in Canada. Therefore, Chevrier notes that “we should have strong social services that subsidize education, but what seems to be happening is a shift in priorities and the population doesn’t benefit from these high taxes”.

What are some concrete solutions to prevent tuition fee increases? The solution is in more
than just displacing the fees on the Government, the schools, or the students; in reality, every time that tuition has increased, the government has withdrawn an equivalent amount of money from university funding. Essentially, tuition increases do nothing for underfunded universities.

The solution is in more than another protest, too. The solution starts with demystifying the idea that not enough money is being invested in our schools. It continues to materialize with unveiling the truth, of getting informed as to where that money is actually going. We’ll get even closer to a solution when the Quebec Government shifts their commitment away from business and more toward the social sphere where it can protect Quebec youths’ futures.

Now that the Quebec budget has been introduced, including a significant tuition hike, a protest is planned for tomorrow morning the 18th of March at the Hilton Bonaventure at 11:30 AM. All are welcome and more details can be found on the facebook event.

 

Check out this song…

In a move that surprised many this morning, Premier Jean Charest announced that the provincial budget Finance Minister Raymond Bachand announced on Tuesday will be reworked.

“It has become apparent that we made a mistake,” Charest told reporters assembled for an early morning press conference in front of the National Assembly, “the budget we brought down the other day only helps the rich and they’re not the majority of voters.”

Happier times: Charest and Bachand two days ago (photo Reuters)

The controversial budget, which would have seen fee hikes across the board including increased tuition for students, Hydro rates and even a user fee for Medicare drew the ire of Quebecers from different walks of life. It seems that for the first time in a long time, the Charest government listened.

“We realized that much of what’s in the budget is unacceptable,” Charest commented to the somewhat bewildered press corps, “I mean, part of it goes against the Canadian Health Act. We thought we’d be able to use the state of the economy as an excuse to ram through some of our neoliberal agenda. We were wrong.”

He did stop short of a complete Mea Culpa, however. After explaining how an alternate budget will be drawn up and released later this afternoon, Charest laid the blame squarely on his Minister of Finance: “Raymond Bachand is to blame. No, I’m not going to fire him so I can scapegoat him again, but rest assured, he’s the one to blame.”

However, Charest did conclude with some reassuring words for his wealthy friends, almost all supporters of policies like those included in the soon-to-be-scrapped budget:

“APRIL FOOLS!”

While this news story is false, the only fake part is Charest admitting what he is doing. If you were upset to find out that the recent budget still stands, then come to the protest. It starts at 1pm in Phillips Square (Ste Catherine and Union, McGill metro). For more, please visit nonauxhausses.org

Concordia is no stranger to advertising or corporate influence. Just ask anyone who’s been to the washroom on campus, walked by the John Molson School of Business or got a coffee or sandwich from any of the chains brought in under the exclusivity contract the school has with Chartwells. Neither are most other universities in North America, for that matter.

At Concordia, though, it looks like the corporate presence on campus may get bigger. President Judith Woodsworth recently told student newspaper The Link that she thinks an American-style tuition model is better than the government-subsidized one that is already in place. While she hasn’t specified exactly what role she anticipates for them or what this private model may look like, there is a possible example already in effect at McGill.

McGill’s MBA program recently adopted a self-funded model. Instead of costing $1500 a year for Quebec students, tuition will be $29 500 a year starting next year.

“We’re worried this trend might continue in other programs and other universities,” says Nadia Hausfather of the group Montreal Students Against Tuition Increase, “add to that the fact that the president of Concordia has been reaching out to the business community for more funding. While this might seem harmless and well-intentioned, we are concerned that asking for help from business implies an acceptance that the government can not or will not invest in education. We are also concerned that this could mean accepting a growing presence and influence of business on campus.”

One group that isn’t concerned about the increased corporate presence on campus is PubPartout. This Billionaires For Bush-esque marketing firm wants to see the “complete commercialization of our culture” and is ecstatic about the prospect of more spots on campus to advertise.

Concordia student taking the PubPartout survey with CEO Brandon You (photo by Cindy Lopez)

“We want to see a corporate logo on every building and textbook as well as name branding on every faculty and department,” says PubPartout CEO Brandon You, “with higher tuition, we may even be able to convince the students to brand themselves.”

The group was on campus last Tuesday and returns to the Hall Building today. Their plan is to have students fill out a survey with questions like “privatized education is good because…” and “how excited are you to be branded?”

If this doesn’t give you the impression that their tongues are somewhere in the vicinity of their cheeks, then maybe the game they have will. They are inviting students to put on a blindfold and then “pin the corporate logo on the University.”

Pin the corporate logo on the university (photo by Cindy Lopez)

Last week, many students were happy to oblige, though with a bit of trepidation about the rationale behind the exercise. This week, who knows. If you want to find out, you can go to the second floor of the Hall Building between 2pm and 5pm or fill out their survey online.

Jonathan Glencross gets things done.   He is an inspiring McGill student studying environment & development and minoring in philosophy who spends twice the effort on some amazing projects that have helped bring McGill up to speed regarding sustainability and bridging the gap between students and administration.

The Sustainability Project Fund (SPF) is his most recent contribution, which was a voting record breaker for McGill.   It saw more than twenty-six percent of the undergraduate student body (5700 students downtown) going to the polls, with 79% in favor of the sustainability fund downtown and 88% on Macdonald campus.   This was the second biggest turnout for a vote in SSMU history.

Nineteen percent of the students who voted were against the fund and to this, Jonathan said   “An overwhelming majority has voted for this. I would love to see Stephen Harper get 79% on anything he ever did.”

Jonathan Glencross presenting to a crowd of over 400 McGill students on a Tuesday night about the McGill Food Systems Project

Jonathan Glencross presenting to a crowd of over 400 McGill students on a Tuesday night about the McGill Food Systems Project

Jonathan has also also taken a lead role in the McGill Food Systems Project, is the coordinator for the Sustainable McGill project, is involved with the sustainability working group, attends SSMU environment commission meetings and sometimes goes to the four classes he is currently registered in.

“I skipped my class this morning to work on this fund because it’s clearly more worthwhile, and I will continue making decisions in the sense of asking where I am most effective,” he stated, “I find it hard learning things in the classroom when you’re not effecting change locally, too.”

Jonathan’s 215 person campaign team for the SPF contacted about every environmental and social group on campus and made over 100 class announcements.   The team also created a 2450 member-strong facebook group in 6 days during the campaign, which is impressive in itself.

“There has been an overall positive reaction from everybody,” he said, noting that “there have been reservations and hesitations, but no significant opposition.”

The fund will charge a $0.50 per credit, non-opt-out-able fee through tuition over a three year trial period.   Funds will be available to students, administration and staff alike.   All funds from students will be matched to the cent by the University.

“If students are willing to pay up front, it needs to be recognized that it’s a meaningful thing and to do that is by a matching component,” he added.

The SPF concept was initially put on the table by Jim Nicell, associate vice principle of University services and James McGill engineering professor.   He first proposed for students to have the capacity of creating their own fund, similar to Concordia University’s sustainability action fund.

“The real question came down to, ‘how do we create a culture of sustainability at McGill?’. It became increasingly obvious that we needed to create incentives and avenues of creativity and involve it at the scale that affects behavior and operations,” Jonathan said, asking: “if you’ve lowered your footprint but you haven’t changed perceptions, then what have you really changed?”

Further development of SPF took place when Jonathan began researching the different ways other universities have run sustainability funding projects and then began forming a proposal which led into negotiations.

“It became obvious that as students, we weren’t going to move forward on a self-operating model,” he argues, “we felt it was more meaningful to have a matching component with administration.   The polarized culture of “us vs. them” that we have right now at McGill is less than trusting and the proposal addresses this.   Trying to break down this mentality will bring out the best in people.   Trust is integral, and consensus and parity are really important aspects of the fund.”

As Albert Einstein had once said, “great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocre minds.”   The opposition Jonathan received was not borne of violence, but of an unwillingness to change.

“I was told that this fund wouldn’t be possible, but no other issue has gotten students out to vote to this degree.   People will tell you all the time that you can’t do something, but no is never a reason for me.”

With this, he quoted a professor who asked if we are just rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic.   “What is it that we are doing?   Are we getting to the fundamental issues or not?”

Regarding Jonathan’s future plans, he shared that “If I had a choice right now, I’d like to take a nap.” He spends at least double the amount of energy on projects outside the classroom, “It’s what I’m passionate about.”

This is something that McGill has needed for quite some time.   Speaking for myself, it has always been an embarrassment to see how much further other schools were in terms of making their campuses more sustainable. Jonathan isn’t comfortable taking all of the credit, but as a major catalyst for this leap forward, I send a big thank you to him.   Thank you, Jonathan.

To learn more about funding details, and about the project itself, please click here.

Physics courses are actually beneficial for students

Many students have had their dreams dashed on the high cliffs of calculus and physics prerequisite courses.  These classes are hard and largely have little to do with an aspiring student’s field of study.  I have always been a fervent advocate of admonishing the usefulness of taking these courses, until I actually took them.

Is it useful?

As a student in the McGill school of environment, I had little exposure to hard science in my science degree and the calculus and physics prerequisites I needed were left until I basically finished my bachelor of science.  I was even more of a math and physics basher, because why should I have to take these pre-requisites when I had basically finished my entire degree without needing these classes at all?  Bad news for me; if I wanted to get that piece of paper and wear a funny hat, I needed to do these prerequisites, so off I went.

After having done well, much to my surprise, in calculus, I still had the arduous task of taking three pre-university physics courses.  I whizzed through the first course (mechanics) by the skin of my teeth during a speedy summer course without actually knowing what I was studying and am currently procrastinating for my midterm exams in the last two physics classes (electricity & magnetism and waves & modern physics).  I have been absolutely shocked, flabbergasted and dumbfounded to find that these classes are actually important and dare I say interesting and useful for my field of study.

My area of focus for the last few years at McGill has been the study of biodiversity and conservation.  I have been heading in the direction of Indigenous solidarity and journalism and hence wandering even farther away from the field of hard science. This has made it even more difficult to stay motivated in my physics classes, however, it’s like having one last dance with science before I move on to other pastures.

Having been a student of the environment, I have been looking at a largely macroscopic scale.   I like looking at patterns and ecological systems, seeing how everything works together.  Physics is like the glue that holds all of this succinctly.  It is the ant of the science world, explaining the physical phenomenon behind everything.

I now ask myself how I could have considered my environmental education complete without knowing how colors are formed and how could I understand the basics of climate change without understanding how heat is created and lost.

I have had my scientific wonder rekindled in these courses.  Maybe because it’s my last semester as an undergrad and I have chosen to not lose energy through complaining, or maybe it’s simply because this material is really, really cool and important to learn for anyone who wants to understand how the earth works.

It isn’t all good, though.  The math is still very challenging and first-year classes such as these two don’t tend to be taught by the best professors.  Physics also has a classical view that nature is something to be understood in tiny pieces, thereby dominating the planet through science.

The repetitive nature of science doesn’t always have long-term visioning for the well-being of the environment due to the fact that it just wants to prove a specific finding in the then and now, which can be very wasteful and harmful for the earth.  The small-scale that physics views the world through can also cause a loss of view of the big-picture.

Not seeing the whole picture

This goes along with a popular scientific analogy that dares to use comedy and paints a very definitive picture of the problem I am describing: There is an elephant in the room.  One scientist is examining the tail, another the trunk, one the hide and the last a leg.  Each scientist will have a dramatically different description of the elephant and will work tooth and bone in proving that their findings of the elephant are what elephants are.

An ecological approach will look at the elephant as a whole system that needs each part to be an elephant.  Just as long as this perspective isn’t lost, I find physics a fascinating field and I am actually glad to have to take it, math and crappy teachers aside.  That’s a pretty unpopular opinion, but it has taught me, once again, not to knock something until you try it.

For the past two years, I have been working for McGill University. This job barely puts food on the table, but it’s the “experience” that counts, right?   The experience of earning less pay for skilled work than city workers get for cleaning up garbage*.   Huh, thanks McGill.

Despite the gripes I have about my pay, the job has allowed me many moments of introspection about urban wildlife and people.   I work at the  Urban Nature Information Service, a free service that is offered seasonally during the summer months out of the Macdonald Campus to assist callers (and e-mailers, and visitors) with their various urban nature problems, be it a composting question, problems with skunks and raccoons or horticulture.

Ladybug on a cucumber – unwanted guest? (photo Mel Lefebvre)

I’ve been handling the calls about wildlife, which includes mammals, birds and exterior insect “problems”.   As a believer in the equality of all life, I have a hard time giving out advice on the phone sometimes.   I understand the frustration of having a groundhog devour a backyard vegetable patch; all the hours put into maintaining a small plot in the hopes of harvesting some locally grown, potentially organic, wholesome produce at the end of the season, but seriously.   There’s a bigger picture that I’ve found is overlooked by some homeowners.

Some of the calls I get complain about these animal “problems” with such an out-of-touch perspective   it’s as if the collective mind has forgotten that humans aren’t the most important species on the planet.   I try to advise people in a way that allows for some degree of coexistence with urban wildlife, but it gets tricky sometimes.   It is, in fact, a problem associated with urban sprawl, especially when I get calls from regions that are undergoing rapid development.     Where do the animals have left to go?   Hot spots like beneath sheds and balconies are welcome shelters for animals that have lost their homes.

I am thankful that many callers understand this, but it is frustrating when people aren’t willing to share a bit of “their” space with wildlife and expect someone to come and carry their problems away.   New laws in Quebec have been put in place during the last 3-5 years to protect urban wildlife, mostly due to the fact that relocated mammals have extremely low survival rates.

It would be like taking your aunt Emma, plopping her in the middle of rural France and saying “there you go aunt Emma, this place is the same as Montreal, now go and prosper”.   Aunt Emma will be standing there without a clue and probably be quite frightened, hungry and alone, especially if her offspring were left behind.   Just because the habitat an animal was moved to may be ideal for that species, many people don’t take the following into consideration:

  • Wild animals have to deal with competition for food and space from other animals.
  • They don’t necessarily know the good spots to forage for food, they don’t know what predators may be around and they will have to find, or build a new nest or burrow. Having just been moved, most animals are just frightened and don’t end up surviving due to these big stressors.

The very best thing to do when you have a wild mammal on your property that you don’t want to cohabit with is to exclude it from the spot where it has taken refuge and let it find its new home by itself, even if it’s in the city.

Generally, callers understand the need to cohabit and it’s great to hear from genuinely concerned people who really do care about the well being of urban wildlife.   There is the occasional caller who doesn’t see any other way to deal with wildlife besides obliterating them and this is where patience is a virtue.   The worst calls, however, are when people want to remove ants.

Ants inside a home may signal some structural problems with your property and may need some outside help, but when I get calls from people wanting to thin out ant populations outside, I hesitantly give out advice that makes me feel no less valiant than ‘Dubyah’ in his various crusades against human diversity.   I give out eco-friendly advice, yes, but internally, I am asking for ant-forgiveness.

Ants, like thousands of other arthropods, have an enormous benefit for ecosystems everywhere.   They move nutrients up and down the soil column which increases soil fertility and provides aeration. When they get out of hand, it is due to an imbalance in that system.   The unfortunate thing is that many of the calls I receive require long-term solutions and we think in the short-term.   Fix the imbalance and a level of coexistence should be restored, although it may not be in a human-centric way.   This basically means that we probably won’t get there for a very long time, but each little ant that isn’t squished, boiled or poisoned and each raccoon, skunk or groundhog that gets to continue foraging through our garbage cans will thank us for it.

*I fully appreciate and respect those who do this sort of job, I was merely drawing an imaginary “skill appreciation” comparison, criticizing McGill; a school who touts themselves as the “Harvard of the North”, yet keeps their student workers on a short financial leash barely able to scrape by and causing many of us who pay rent and buy food to perpetuate and increase our debt load.

If you stroll through Concordia University’s library building today, you’ll see a booth with a video playing that links psychiatry to several of the ills that society is now and has been afflicted with, from 9/11 to Hitler.   If you look a little closer you’ll see that it’s a group called the Citizens’ Commission on Human Rights behind the exhibit.   If you ask the protesters in the Guy Fox masks outside, they’ll tell you that the group attacking the psychiatric profession is actually a front for the Church of Scientology.

Yes, that’s right, the same Scientology that Tom Cruise is part of, the same Scientology that the group of masked protesters known as Anonymous Montreal who are part of the global Anonymous movement refer to as a dangerous cult.   That Scientology.

While Scientology’s association with the display and the display itself has brought much criticism from psychiatrists, students, the aforementioned protest group and people in general, one question that comes to mind is just what the Church of Scientology is doing with a display at Concordia in the first place.

For Michael Di Grappa, Concordia’s vice-president, it is a matter of academic freedom and freedom of expression.   He told The Gazette that “there is an expectation that the exhibit will respect the spirit of our commitment to academic freedom. It is a precondition of any event on our campus that the emphasis will be and at all times will remain on the respectful discussion and debate of possibly opposing positions in a secure, collegial environment.”

Considering some of the other organizations that have had displays at Concordia in the past while, one wonders if there may be something else at play when it comes to the University’s decision-making regarding permission to display on campus.   Last year, for example, the Gillette Company had a booth promoting Venus brand razors under the guise of a scholarship.

Meanwhile, the school has attempted, sometimes successfully, to block groups from speaking or holding events on campus deemed too politically sensitive or controversial.   There is even a secret Risk Assessment Committee that was established for just such a purpose.   Also, theatrical protestors and other groups hoping to change the discourse and challenge the corporate presence are generally asked to vacate the premises.

So while some events and groups are deemed to risky or politically controversial to be part of campus life, corporate displays are welcome despite the resistance to them and the Church of Scientology, which is controversial from the get-go, is allowed to put up an exhibit that will undoubtedly upset many.   If this looks like a double standard, then the question becomes why.

While we have not learned at press time the cost of setting up a booth at Concordia, the reasoning behind who gets a permit and who gets denied campus access could very well be one of money.   In that case, this supposed free speech is nothing more than paying to preach.