Category Archives: Winter 2016

Speaking easy

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or as long as  I can remember, I have felt uncomfortable with the practice of political correctness. In secondary school, I remember arguing about this matter with a friend. She said that political correctness was necessary so as to be sensitive and respectful of people’s differences — a means to social cohesion.

Some stringent opponents of political correctness claim that the practice obstructs freedom of  speech. They argue that political correctness is censorship of language that whitewashes their ability to say what they truly believe.

I am not suggesting we accept political correctness, but I do feel that it is necessary to understand it. I think the idea is aptly described in a Truthout article by Christopher Petrella and Justin Gomer, who wrote that, “Contrary to the claims of corporate media, political correctness isn’t a progressive project insisting upon sensitivity for traditionally marginalized communities; it’s a conservative strategy that sets and polices the parameters of acceptable racial redress.”

The narrow view of what is and what is not politically correct is that it is a framework to guide what we can and cannot say. On a deeper, more sinister level, it may enable people to avoid discussing issues that make them uncomfortable, by using bland terms to discuss troubling topics. The result of this is not respectful coexistence. In my view, political correctness can be used as a strategy to silence marginalized people from using forceful rhetoric, and gives privileged people a language to discriminate in an acceptable manner.

A further problem with political correctness, is that it stagnates real progress that comes from speaking about uncomfortable truths. It prevents people from having open discussions. It silences the oppressed, and keeps the privileged comfortable.

I recently moved to Toronto from England. Racism is subtle here; I feel that people adopt politically correct language to mask its presence. My experience in Toronto is that people here don’t like to admit that there is a racial problem. I have frequently encountered praise of Toronto’s multiculturalism, especially compared to the racism in the US.  These mentions of multiculturalism sidestep any meaningful discussion of racism. It is amazing to live in a city that is comprised of people from so many backgrounds, but a lack of critical thinking regarding racism breeds complacency, and makes it easier to overlook microaggressions and other forms of subtle racism.

I’ve noticed that white people in Toronto — more so than in Manchester or London — will tend to clearly acknowledge their privilege. While most are well intentioned, they often speak in place of those who are silenced. It seems as though acknowledging privilege has become a rhetorical tool taken from the vocabulary of political correctness that allows dominant voices to take up space.

Instead of politically correct conversations, we need honest discourse. To respect the people with whom we live, we need to be prepared to learn from one another. We live in a deeply troubled world and we should not celebrate language that allows us to pretend otherwise.

Debt sentence

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I began  compiling this photo series, I wanted to focus on the students who would be affected by the recent announcement of the Ontario Student Grant.

I hoped to engage with students about the issue. The conversations I had with students eventually touched upon their own school costs rather than the merits and downfalls of the government program.

For some, it was the first time they had calculated the total cost of their education. In the end, this project became an examination of the price of post-secondary education. Whether you believe that tuition costs are a necessity or a ‘debt sentence,’ this essay puts a face to the cost of education.   

For all of the photos, I asked students to estimate the cost of their degrees and to explain their goals following graduation.

Sing for your supper

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]edia outlets  produce content that caters to distinct tastes in hopes that it will resonate with a desired audience. Predicting what will become popular, however, is no easy feat. Popularization is a phenomenon that has its basis in media producers making educated guesses about what will satisfy consumers.

Like most industries, the media operates on a basis of supply and demand. The content that an outlet curates and produces is always subject to the approval of their consumers.

Media outlets are obligated to follow this equation if they wish to maintain audience engagement and spread their reach. In an increasingly interconnected and digitized world, critical observation of media becomes crucial to understanding the politics of popularization. If people can observe how and why content becomes popular, they can begin to understand which aesthetics, brands, and forms generate attention better than others.

Quality content

Anupa Mistry is the Canada editor of The FADER, a magazine based in New York City that specializes in taste-making and spotlighting underground music and culture. Mistry believes that “it’s great that a lot of young people are blogging about music and culture.” The influx of blogging, however, crowds the marketplace for music journalism, in Mistry’s view.

“Publications will blog about any and every single thing,” she says, which makes it difficult to distinguish the kinds of content that a given generation is receptive to ­­— in other words, their taste profile. One result of this, according to Mistry, is that the industry is saturated with the ideas known to have once garnered attention. She says that it is a hallmark of the digital era that blurs the line between what the public wants to consume and what they are simply being offered en masse.

Generations’ tastes are constantly changing. They are not easily reduced to specific criteria such as likeness, shape, or form. Popular content offers added value in many ways. In the right place, at the right time, popular content accomplishes something, whether it is connecting with its consumers on a personal level or challenging stylistic and creative limitations.

Content quality, then, is a concept in flux rather than an objective trait. Artists can aspire to a certain caliber of work, but ultimately how their content is received  by the audience will determine whether or not they are successful.

Alyssa Petru, digital coordinator for Bell Media, suggests that the ability of content producers to compete with the constant growth of content archives on the Internet is in itself a measure of the quality of the artist’s work. Content creators that have stayed “honest and true to themselves, and [avoided] getting caught up in an idea of what they should be, or what ‘character’ they should play” have been the most successful in Petru’s view. In her experience, the “authenticity of the individual,” and “differentiation among a sea of creators” tend to help art stand out online. “Finding that rare niche or theme that defines your brand and sticks with you and your audience is crucial to a foreseeable future of sustainable success.”

Corinne Pryzbyslawski and Vanessa Wang/The Varsity.
Corinne Pryzbyslawski and Vanessa Wang/The Varsity.

According to Mistry, regardless of whether they are receiving publicity through underground publications or corporate powerhouses, “talent really is what’s going to sustain an artist’s career.” Marketing tactics, such as unique use of social media or the proliferation of a particular aesthetic can help content generate attention at first; however, sustained popularity depends upon the artist’s ability to produce content that suits changing tastes. Marketing tactics and the use of aesthetics alone would not be enough to propel content that people do not enjoy. This, Mistry says, is “totally apparent in people’s online behaviours.”

Mistry advises that artists in the nascent stage of their careers would be prudent to focus on their craft and not to get “caught up on visual aesthetic,” for these reasons.

Going viral

Taste and timing work in tandem to spur mass-consumption — in other words, they are necessary to make something ‘go viral.’ Artists who are good at recognizing appetites within the market are at an advantage when publishing viral content. The key to content going viral, it would seem, is a well-timed release that corresponds to the public mood.

Frazer Lavender knows about the importance of timing. He founded the Toronto Radio Project (TRP) in November 2014, after sensing that there was an unfulfilled demand for independent music channels playing good local content in the city. The independent station now boasts a 24 hour schedule of shows five days a week, and their Facebook page has over 3,000 likes.

Radio projects like TRP are crucial to the media landscape. They help make people aware of independent content they might not otherwise consume. TRP strives to “introduce Toronto to its own artists,” through shows like Intersections, hosted by Michael Newton, and New Toronto Radio, hosted by Devon Little. Where FM radio might be “obviously pushing a sound or an artist,” Lavender says TRP has the curatorial freedom to “become the voice” for the tastes of this generation.

New Toronto Radio specializes in showcasing underground content that is set to emerge from Toronto. Little curates the show’s content from a wide variety of brands and genres. He admits that while branding can sometimes help in directing the attention of a tastemaker, it is not the main factor in his curatorial decisions, saying that “if the music is good, I’ll play it.”

Corinne Pryzbyslawski and Vanessa Wang/The Varsity.
Corinne Pryzbyslawski and Vanessa Wang/The Varsity.

Newton adds that “the hours in a day don’t ever grow, but [TRP] did.” This provided the station the freedom to narrow the focus of each channel into distinct musical niches. Newton’s show tends to be “mostly focused on guitar-centric bands, because that’s [the show’s] taste spectrum,” but he still seeks a wide variety of music to play.

For example, in the past, Newton says he, “played very obvious, ‘iPhone-in-the-middle-of-the-floor’ punk band demos” because the craftsmanship of the song was of such a high caliber. Newton notes that “Some of [his] favourite albums are very raw, and not technically great, but the song craft is there.” When it comes to the quality of music, for Newton, “not everything has to sound like Paul Simon’s Graceland.”

Lavender says that there are many approaches to the curation of a radio show, one of which is simply to select music that you enjoy. According to Lavender, “By doing that, you’re still producing something good. You’re generating a community for that niche. It invites other people to participate.”

He notes the reception of the content being shared is instantly apparent. “[I]t’s clear to see when people have something they want to do, it resonates straight away.” 

In the case of TRP, Lavender says “It’s curated, it’s thought out, and it’s supposed to be, at times, a little jarring, where you go from a political chat show to a live hardware electronic music.”

Tune in to tastes

Garnering attention may strike some artists as the immediate goal when preparing content, but the reality is that aesthetics and branding do not supersede talent. Creators of content must work on their craft and attempt to predict what will generate positive reception based on people’s tastes.

Marketing tactics, when they are well-applied, can help artists to gain attention in the digital media industry, but not all content that imitates previous success will have this effect.

Content that is deemed ‘quality’ is largely dependent on the environment in which the content is showcased. As a result, the popularization of content becomes a reflection of the communities that consume and create it. For this reason, critical observation of public attitudes is incredibly important to creative industries.

Dinosaurs of comedy

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f I rode the subway  and joked loudly about the appearance of the people around me, I would probably make my fellow commuters extremely uncomfortable and be berated for it. Yet, if I made the same jokes as a comedian does on stage in front of an audience, my position might protect me from reprimand.

The freedom enjoyed by comedians, however, may be changing. Social expectations are constantly in flux, and comedy is not immune to their ebb and flow. University and college campuses are one of the first frontiers on which comedians are battling the changing expectations of their work.

The problem comedy faces at universities, according to famous comedians including Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K., is the increasing political correctness of student crowds. Audiences becoming increasingly intolerant of jokes that target or offend marginalized populations. Diversity and cultural acceptance are at the heart of many student spaces. In response to this, some comedians may choose not to perform for audiences they expect will react negatively.

Celeste Yim is a student at the University of Toronto and a comedian who performs on campus and in comedy clubs around the city. She has felt the “sting of alienation” within comedy circles as a woman of colour that calls out comedians she considers to be offensive. “I don’t know how I could say that I’m offended by something … [and] somebody with a different experience… can refute that. That’s invalid.”

The line between a joke being funny and offensive is difficult to define, if it exists at all. Are jokes about gay people always homophobic? Are jokes about Chinese people always racist? These questions must be asked, especially as high profile comedians claim that the field is contingent upon jokes that deal with these topics.

Audiences provide de facto feedback on these issues through their reactions at shows. The presence or absence of laughs can tell comedians a lot about what their audiences are looking for and the changing attitudes that surround their craft.

“It just comes down to knowing your audience, knowing who you’re talking to, and who wants to hear what stuff,” says Jordan Foisy, a comic who performs in a weekly comedy show called Chuckle Co. at The Comedy Bar in Toronto.

“It just comes down to knowing your audience, knowing who you’re talking to, and who wants to hear what stuff.”

“People who are most upset about the new [politically correct] culture don’t even want to listen to why people are saying that something offends them. [They say] just don’t worry about it, instead of being, like, oh maybe I should take a second and be empathetic to another person that’s telling me what I’m saying is hurtful,” says Foisy.

Foisy advocates for comedians to engage in critical reflection: “If I want to go forward from that, maybe they didn’t get the joke. Maybe there’s a way I can reword it so that it’s better for everyone. Or maybe I really believe in what I’m saying and I think it’s worth the discomfort, okay go forward. But if you’re not even going to take into consideration why what your joke is saying is upsetting to people now, then I think you’re a fucking dinosaur basically.”

Adding more voices

Foisy describes his work as relatively inoffensive, but he is acutely aware of the ongoing conversation about political correctness within comedy.

“What’s happening in terms of marginalized communities finally having a voice to say that they’re offended by a joke — it’s not PC [political correctness] police — it’s the fact that people of colour and women have Twitter now, and that they can ruin somebody’s career if somebody is a fucking racist piece of shit… And this is the first time in the history of the world that the audience has as much voice as the people telling the jokes,” says Foisy.

Jess Beaulieu is a co-host of The Crimson Wave, a weekly feminist comedy show at The Comedy Bar, and agrees that conversing about comedy is an opportunity to educate.

“You’re educating people in the process, with art. You’re educating men, you’re educating straight people, you’re educating white people, [and] you’re educating people who body shame. You’re like, ‘Oh, this is what you’re doing wrong, this is my experienc[e],’” says Beaulieu. The show is feminist-friendly; it invites women, as well as queer people, people of colour, and people of all sizes.

Beaulieu explains,“There is a demand for this kind of comedy, because feminists [in] particular, and women, queer people, anyone really belonging to a marginalized group, [have] been out-casted from the comedy community as an audience member, or as a community for years. And they aren’t able to even watch a show without being triggered, without being angry, without being offended, without being personally attacked.”

Comedy is seeing an increase in participation by women and people of colour. Some of the most successful comedians in America right now are women, including Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler, and Sarah Silverman. There is a growing number of comedy shows in Toronto that are run by women and that feature women, including The Crimson Wave, West End Girls, Open Gigi, White Girl Wasted, and Things Black Girls Say.

Beaulieu says this has caused a shift in dialogue. “I think that … women are in more leadership roles in comedy in this industry, in terms of hosting their own shows, producing their own shows, creating opportunities for themselves, and giving other women stage time, giving other women voices, giving other women platforms where they can share their comedy and their thoughts and opinions in a positive space that isn’t going to shit on them for saying that.”

Laura Wang/The Varsity
Laura Wang/The Varsity

As a young women and comedian, Yim is aware of the learning curve that comes with comedy performance.

“So many people who, in my mind, champion the best ideas of what comedy is supposed to be get it wrong. And they probably will get it wrong and will continue to get it wrong. Everybody makes mistakes and everybody is learning and changing, and especially with comedy, you know, some of the most famous comedians in the world, you watch their stand-up specials from two weeks ago and five years ago and their comedy is crazy different,” Yim says.

Navigating voices

Comedy as a genre is not homogenous; comedians tackle taboo topics and sensitive issues with various strategies.  The content of their performances is unlikely to be interpreted the same way by all audiences. Certain subjects will be considered taboo to some and acceptable to others. A comedian is an artist with a platform to address topics that make them tick — things that are important, powerful, or painful. Talking about these issues can challenge an audience and leave them uncomfortable. There is the hope that they learn something or feel a little less uncomfortable the next time the topic is broached. 

Beaulieu explains that some people are uncomfortable with what she covers in her feminist comedy shows. Regardless, her passion for sex education drives her to incorporate this topic into her work.

“What I’m doing is not controversial in the same sense as a white comedian going up on stage and using the N-word, or a man calling their girlfriend a bitch, or a whore, or whatever. That’s, to me, a very different kind of controversy,” says Beaulieu. I don’t even consider what I’m doing controversy, and the whole point of my comedy is to normalize this stuff, to take the controversy out of it, because periods should not be controversial, being bisexual should not be controversial, sex in general should not be controversial since most people in the world have it.”

Foisy agrees, “I love the idea of challenging the audience. I don’t want them to be comfortable the whole time, I want them to think about things, I want them to challenge their own preconception about themselves.”

Foisy thinks this requires knowing what your audience wants. “If you just think they’re idiots out of the gate, or vice-versa, you just think they’re uptight [political correctness] police out of the gate, then you’re not going to able to challenge them — they’re just going to tune you out,” he explains.

Satire is used by comedians to expose flaws or deficiencies in governments or people in power, sometimes with the goal of effecting change. But when misunderstood or used poorly, satire can just be harmful and offensive. Beaulieu does not encourage comedians to use satire as a way to broach sensitive topics, such as race or sexual identity.

“I don’t think a lot of audiences are smart enough to grasp satire… And there will also be people, even if they do understand it, they’ll laugh for the wrong reasons, and then we are still programming human beings to laugh at racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, body-shaming punch lines,” says Beaulieu.

American satirists are popular and sometimes use their popularity to make public statements aimed at inciting change. Stephen Colbert testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee in 2010 with a sarcastic speech about the living conditions and lack of rights for migrant farm workers in the United States. In his speech, Colbert used racial slurs and other provocative methods to point out the American government’s indecencies toward migrants.

At the same time, Colbert was interested in using his voice to amplify the issues of a marginalized group. “I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and this seemed like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result,” he said in Congress.

Comedic methods like these can be rewarding, but they are also risky; Colbert’s speech could have been interpreted as a privileged man propagating racist discourse.

Beaulieu’s rule of thumb is to punch up and never down, in relation to your privilege and that of the group that you are talking about. A white comedian discussing the wrongdoings of white people is punching up. A female comedian talking about misogynistic men is punching up. A straight comedian mocking queer people would be punching down.

When it comes to sensitive topics, Beaulieu believes, “If you’re going to be criticizing a group of people, or even a political issue, or a world issue in general — it should always be punching up depending on what your identity is… that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t talk about certain issues, but you have to be more careful with them if you are the oppressor in the subject that you’re tackling.”

Yim agrees, “I don’t think that there is anything we can’t touch, that comedy is excluded from. But I think it’s incredibl[y] important to be aware of your role in comedy, and to have a goal with that.”

“I don’t think that there is anything we can’t touch, that comedy is excluded from. But I think it’s incredibl[y] important to be aware of your role in comedy, and to have a goal with that.”

Yim will consider a few things when deciding whether a joke is worth the “currency” she has on stage. “Was that joke necessary, is it something we needed to draw attention to for this joke to work? Were people offended and did they express that? And was it funny? Remember why we’re here. Was that funny and was that worth it?”

Close to home

Local comedy shows are inexpensive spots for entertainment, often requesting as little as five dollars for a show featuring experienced comedians. Campus comedy troupes, such as the Trinity College Comedy Collective and the UC Follies Sketch Comedy Troupe, bring the art close to home.

The Trinity College Comedy Collective invites comedians from around the city to put on a show for students during exam season or other times of heightened stress.

Yim is the co-head writer for the UC Follies Sketch Troupe, a group of nine students who put on bi-monthly shows at local clubs in the city and smaller shows on campus.

Yim finds pleasure in working with diverse individuals in her comedy troupes, some with experience in comedy and some with no experience at all, who are just interested in laughing. “When you get a group of people telling these stories from different points of view, what could be more interesting than that? I just can’t think of anything else,” she says.

Like other student initiatives, student comedy can be defined by progressive attitudes. Young people may be the driving force behind a changing comedy scene that is becoming more diverse and accepting of marginalized populations and their involvement in the scene as performers and organizers of shows.

Both campus organizations represent an intersection of students and local comedy. This intersection of campus comedy with the Toronto comedy scene brings together different audiences and sparks ideas.

Yim says, “I would be more inclined to make a hesitantly less [politically correct] joke off-campus than I would on campus… For one, I would know the people I’m performing for, and I wouldn’t want to offend any of them… But more than that, the standards for progressiveness and liberalism and general decency are higher for me on campus, so I assume it would be for others on campus. There is a heightened sense of awareness when it comes to offending groups of people or certain people.”

Foisy believes that the difference in audiences between one place and the next, even within Toronto, keeps things exciting as comedy evolves in the city. “I would say when I started, it was like a lot of comedy scenes, where it didn’t really reflect the city it was in …. it was mostly white guys. And now it’s still mostly white guys, but I would say the proportion is less. I think there’s way more people and more of them are women and people of colour. And that’s rad too. It’s an exciting time to do comedy, it’s great, [and] people talk about it,” he says.

Check your coat, then check your privilege

Privilege and a sense of entitlement can give comedians the feeling that they can say whatever they want, wherever they want, because of the protection of freedom of speech.

Foisy feels, “Not enough comedians recognize that the world has changed underneath their feet … they’re just fucking like, ‘Oh, nobody likes my jokes anymore.’ And it’s like, ‘Well it’s not about your fucking jokes anymore, man, the world is changing.’”

He comments on how comedy as a vehicle for freedom of speech can become an excuse for saying offensive things: “Their jokes never back up how important they think what they’re saying is… it’s like, ‘OK, if that’s true, if what you’re saying is you need to be able to say all of this stuff that you want to say, then fucking how come I never hear you writing about free trade? Where is your joke about climate change or consumerism or systemic racism, or the influences of money on politics?’ All these big problems, and they don’t tell any jokes about that.”

Beaulieu recognizes that she has a responsibility to address societal problems in her comedy. “Everything I do has a political purpose behind it, that’s the kind of art that I create, so I do think that me talking about sexuality on stage, talking about menstruation, talking about women’s issues, writing about it, producing shows that are very inviting to women… [It] is a responsibility that I feel I do have, and I feel that every human being on this planet should also feel that same responsibility, to use their existence to better the world in some capacity, even if it’s on the more minor level,” she says.

Yim feels a sense of responsibility even for the minor effects comedy can have on individual lives. “In the grand scheme of things, even in the scheme of U of T, we’re not making huge ripples, but for every show we do, it’s that feeling that, ‘We did that, and that’s good that we did that.’ It always feels important. Even if somebody were to come watch one of our shows just once and laugh and continue on with their lives, what a special thing we got to do and share with them,” she explains.

Freedom of speech and empathy are not mutually exclusive. Empathy can help a comedian to check their privilege; free speech can help a comedian expose difficult truths. As some comedians are discovering, “punching up” punch lines that connect to the audience may be reinventing the nature of comedy.

Three demands

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE GLOBAL BDS MOVEMENT makes three demands of Israel that together form the core objective of the movement. Disagreements about the legitimacy of these demands explain some of the divergence of opinion on BDS.

Demand one:

Withdraw from the West Bank settlements, and tear down the wall along the Green Line

The first demand calls on Israel to withdraw from its settlements in the West Bank and tear down the wall along the Green Line — the border drawn following the 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and its neighbours.

Approximately 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, with 75 per cent of settlers living near the Green Line. Many settlers are drawn to the lower cost of living, as housing is subsidized. Others choose to settle there for religious reasons.

Several United Nations  Security Council and General Assembly resolutions have considered the settlements illegal, as has the Canadian government, despite its otherwise steadfast support for the state of Israel.

The basis for this conclusion may be found in Article 49(1) and 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that: “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive” and “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

Additionally the barrier set by the Green Line was found to be in violation of international law by the International Court of Justice. Israel maintains that neither the barrier nor the Green Line are illegal. Israel argues that the Green Line was put in place due to security concerns and the threat of terrorism.

“[T]he settlements are illegal by any standards of international law,” says Hanssen. “[The fact that] they still get… built even during [the] Oslo [process] and actually enhanced in the 2000’s is not because they’re legal. It’s because the… state of Israel gets away with it. It’s because it’s politically powerful enough or it has enough backing to get away with it. Even though it is illegal, it still happens.”

Fishman argues that the language in the Fourth Geneva Convention only refers to forcible movements by an occupying power on a foreign civilian population. “[I]t would be illegal for Israel… [to] force them militarily to move to the West Bank. That’s not allowed and that’s not what Israel’s doing.”

Swirsky also sees Israel’s settlements as illegal and as a barrier to peace. Because of this, he supports a boycott of products made there.

“The settlements are constructed, and its inhabitants, by and large, living there for messianic reasons that are incompatible with not only the UN’s designated borders of Israel, but with the sustenance of a modern, democratic state, especially when there are Palestinian people living in deplorable conditions with uneasy access to livelihoods,” he says. “The settlements add no discernible economic benefit to Israel, and gives them everything to lose in terms of global diplomacy, goodwill, and in general a mind to what is right for the Palestinian people, especially those oppressed by the status quo in the West Bank.”

Hanssen shares a similar view and believes that the infrastructure within the settlements that was built by Israel should remain in place as a form of reparations.

Demand two:


Equal rights for Palestinian Arabs in Israel


The second demand of the BDS movement calls for equal rights for Palestinian Arabs living in the State of Israel, proper.

Opponents of BDS claim that this demand is already fulfilled. “There are equal rights for the citizens of Israel,” Fishman says.

Swirsky says, “As it stands now, however, Arab citizens of Israel proper do indeed enjoy equal rights on the surface, as evidenced by countless Arab university students and graduates… the presence of Arab justices on the Supreme Court, and the status of the Joint Arab List as the third party in the Knesset.”

Sa’adeh contends that equality for Arab Palestinians in Israel is superficial at best. “Well, Netanyahu’s campaign that got him elected was saying, ‘look at all the Arabs that are going to the polls. We should do something about it.’ That’s the current Prime Minister of Israel,” he says, “so you have a racist system of apartheid that actually does discriminate against the Arab population within Israel.”

Comparison between Israel’s role in Palestine and South African apartheid has been a point of contention within the BDS movement.

“[I]n Israel proper I can’t imagine something more opposite to apartheid, because you actually have Jews, and Muslims, and Christians, people from all over the world, mingling, and getting along in Israel itself, relatively well,” says Fishman.

Hanssen has a different view. “You can argue that they have more rights than the blacks had in South Africa but in some ways, they have less rights,” he argues. “Buying property is impossible for them. There are no benches marked ‘Jews only’ so these egregious kind of forms of racism that existed in south Africa don’t exist, but structurally… it’s quite comparable.”

Sirri also points to Israel’s immigration laws and the Law of Return that allows Jews from anywhere in the world to immigrate to Israel and obtain Israeli citizenship, which he says is a discriminatory practice.

“Any Jewish person in the world today who can claim that they’re [Jewish] has the right to immigrate, no questions asked, with full rights and equality, quote unquote, in Israel,” Sirri explained. “And yet, someone who is native, indigenous Palestinian to this land doesn’t have the same right.”

Fishman acknowledges that there is societal racism against Arabs in Israel, but maintained that Israeli policy continues to support equal rights.

“The way to remedy this, as in the United States, would be for the government to recognize that these incidents occur, and work with marginalized communities to create a culture within its enforcement bodies that respects and considers all people equally in all circumstances,” Swirsky suggests.

Demand three:


Right of return for Palestinian refugees


The third demand of the movement calls for the right of return for all Palestinian refugees who were displaced during the wars following Israel’s independence. This demand has been a particular point of contention between the supporters and opponents of BDS. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency defines a “Palestinian refugee” to be any Palestinian who was displaced from their homes after the wars in 1948 and 1967, as well as their descendants, which brings their estimated total population to over five million.

Benezrah believes that, should this demand be fulfilled, Israel could no longer be classified as a Jewish state. She points to a statement made by Omar Barghouti, an Egyptian BDS leader from Tel Aviv University, in which he says, “If the [Palestinian] refugees were to return [to Israel], you would not have a two-state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine.”

“The BDS movement… seeks not to create a neighbouring Palestinian state, but to replace Israel completely by transferring millions of Palestinians into Israel,” contends Benezrah.

BDS activists point to the Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country,” as well as Article 49(2) of the Geneva Convention, which states, “Persons thus evacuated shall be transferred back to their homes as soon as hostilities in the area in question have ceased.”

The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which was passed shortly after the conclusion of the war in 1948, stipulates that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible” Some interpret these documents as a guarantee of right of return for Palestinian refugees.

“International law grants all refugees who were displaced as a result of occupation or form of military violence their right to return to their homelands,” says Sa’adeh. “So, I do not think that Palestinians should be an [exception] to that international law.”

Sirri concurs, “that’s a right, period, full stop.”

Hanssen acknowledges the practical concerns of letting all Palestinian refugees return to Israel.

“It’s perhaps not feasible… if you [define] feasibility in terms of what happens if all the descendants of all the Palestinian refugees of all the 800,000 who were evicted from their land in ’48 and ’67 all in [in] one go, that’s going to create chaos,” he said.

Hanssen says an acknowledgement of the right of return by the Israeli government may suffice, even if it does not have the capacity to follow through.

“I’m not saying I have a blueprint, you know… but I think the right of return needs to be recognized as a right, not as a compulsive act.”

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: The manifestation of a movement

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n  FebruaryConservative MPs Michelle Rempel and Tony Clement introduced a motion to the House of Commons to condemn organizations that expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement  — a campaign that calls for economic sanctions against the state of Israel  in response to alleged human rights violations committed in Palestine.

With the support of nearly all of the Liberal and Conservative MPs in Parliament the motion passed, despite members from the other parties voting against the motion. Criticism of the motion by Members of Parliament has almost always been preceded by an affirmation of support for the State of Israel. Despite voting against the motion, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May also expressed opposition to the BDS movement.

In a serious disconnect between parliamentarians and citizens, the nearly unanimous condemnation of BDS by Canadian MPs is far from being echoed by the Canadian public. Some labour unions have endorsed BDS. CUPE Ontario endorsed the movement in 2006, and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers did so in 2008. The Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, have called for their members to boycott products from Israeli settlements. The United Church of Canada, which is Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, has also taken this position.

Of the groups promoting BDS, campus organizations have been among the most active. Several student unions have endorsed the movement, including the York Federation of Students, the McMaster Students Union, the Concordia Students Union, and the Ryerson Student Union. At U of T, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students Union (UTMSU), the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) have all endorsed the movement.

Divergent stances on BDS have produced a tense climate of division, especially on university campuses. At U of T, which has a long history of BDS-related organizing, the movement continues to grow. It has been met with determined support by some, and fiery opposition by others, leaving many to criticize the role of this university in the long-standing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

A history of the Israel-Palestine conflict

Divisions on campus

Nadi Sa’adeh, a graduate student who is involved with the U of T St. George chapter of Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), describes the campus group, which was founded in 2004: “Our organization is non-hierarchical so we are all equal organizers in a flattened structure,” he explains, “and, our work… revolves around specific events that we do throughout the year and basically building movement capacity and doing outreach to students, especially revolving around doing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.”

One of SAIA’s best known initiatives is Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), which hosts events on campus and “brings in different scholars, academics, activists, artists from around the world, and sort of tries to bridge the Palestinian struggles with other struggles around the world,” according to Saadeh. The first Israeli Apartheid Week was held by SAIA at U of T in 2005. The event has since spread and is now held in over 150 of cities around the world.

Pro-Israeli demonstration. CC Flickr by John Christian Fjellestad.
Pro-Israeli demonstration. CC Flickr by John Christian Fjellestad.

SAIA often works closely with the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union’s (UTGSU) Ad-Hoc Committee on BDS, also called U of T Divest. “SAIA and the GSU ad hoc committee are part of the same movement for BDS and, you know, work together in part of… an informal BDS coalition and also working with other… groups both at UTM and UTSC but [also] outside the U of T system,” explains Omar Sirri, a graduate student speaking on behalf of U of T Divest.

The BDS movement at U of T calls for the university to divest from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Hewlett-Packard — companies which, in Sirri’s view, “are arms and weapons manufacturing and technology companies that profit explicitly from violations of international law in Israel and Palestine and profit essentially from war crimes.”

To Sirri, U of T’s investment in these companies makes these institution complicit, albeit indirectly, in the propagation of war crimes. “[A] growing number of staff, faculty, and alumni are of the opinion that the University of Toronto should not be invested in companies that profit from, and itself should not be profiting from, war crimes,” Sirri says, “It’s a very simple campaign in that respect.”

Sirri identifies two key ways in which BDS has an effect on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The first is financial.

“You have divestment… where you literally are demanding to stop investing in these companies because they violate international law and because you want to make economic difference,” Sa’adeh explains.

Sirri sees a 43 per cent drop in the level of Israel’s foreign direct investment, as well as senior Israeli officials calling the movement a “strategic threat” as evidence that the movement is putting strain on the state. “They’re feeling this,” he says.

Sirri also notes what he calls a “symbolic” effect of organizations expressing support for BDS.

“Student unions, labour unions, and faith based groups… who are calling for endorsements for BDS,” he says, “are people who are relied on to have a kind of moral conscience in one form or another, whether it be in terms of labour, whether it be in terms of students having a particular moral authority, which has been the case of decades.”

In addition, Sa’adeh explains that the BDS movement on campuses opens up a vehicle for education and citizen participation.

“It’s actually believing that individuals… could actually change the conditions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by our immediate actions, either through consumer boycott, participating in a divestment campaign or supporting one,” Sirri says.

“It’s actually believing that individuals… could actually change the conditions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by our immediate actions, either through consumer boycott, participating in a divestment campaign or supporting one.”

To others, however, the BDS movement and its implications are less straightforward. It has received persistent resistance as well especially from those connected to the Jewish community.

When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, emotions on campuses often run high. In 2002, protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Concordia University escalated into riots. In 2009, competing rallies of pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students chanting at each other at York University’s Vari Hall made headlines.

U of T has also seen heated debate about the movement. The Varsity recently reported that three grievances were filed by students against the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Social Justice & Equity Commission’s BDS activism, citing that the work was being conducted without ample consultation with students, or democratic process.

Over the summer, a motion to officially endorse BDS was discussed by the UTSU, but was never tabled. Members of the Federation of Students at the University of Waterloo recently voted to reject a boycott of five Israeli universities, while a pro-BDS motion was not ratified by the members of the McGill University Students’ Society.

Some who oppose BDS credit these reactions to a general feeling that the movement is incongruous with the aims of university campuses.

“Just this year, BDS has failed several times on our campus, as well as at the University of Waterloo and most recently at McGill by failing to be ratified by the student body. That’s a clear demonstration of the fact that BDS is at odds with the Canadian consensus and outside the genuine peace movement,” says fourth-year kinesiology student and co-president of Hillel at U of T, Rachel Benezrah. Hillel is the world’s largest Jewish campus organization.

“Hillel plays a fundamental role the in the experience for Jewish students on campus. It acts as a space for educational and social programming, and supports Jewish students in exploring their Jewish identity,” explains Benezrah. “It is our view that Israel plays an integral part [in] that identity.”

Aidan Fishman, first-year law student, and co-founder of Israel-On-Campus (IOC), a group designed to host cultural events showcasing Israeli food, music, film, and artwork, expresses similar sentiments. IOC has also been involved in opposing the BDS movement on campus. “And if I’m honest about it, this year, because there’s been a lot of BDS activity, a lot of attempts against us,” Fishman explains, “we’ve been spending much more time than we usually would on the political side of things and less on the cultural side of things, which is what we’d like to do ideally and enjoy doing most of all.”

Fishman argues that bringing the BDS movement to campus creates a “general hostility” between students, citing York University as an example. “The people it really hurts are Jewish students, not Israel,” he says.

He also questions the legitimacy of the financial pillar of the BDS campaign. “They’re targeting Israel’s ability to thrive economically,” he says, “But what they don’t understand is that that’s not why Israel exists. Israel exists because without… the Jewish state of Israel, the physical safety of its Jewish inhabitants can’t be guaranteed.” As a result, Fishman says, “No matter how much money Israel loses as a result of BDS, it won’t change Israel’s behaviour.”

“No matter how much money Israel loses as a result of BDS, it won’t change Israel’s behaviour.”

In some cases, opposition to BDS has come from groups outside of U of T. The Jewish Defence League (JDL), an off-campus right wing pro-Israel organization classified as a terrorist organization in the US by the FBI in 2001, has a history of disrupting U of T Divest events. On the first occasion, at a U of T Divest launch event in October 2014, the university administration called for the event to be cancelled. Thirty faculty and staff signed a letter to the administration denouncing the response as a failure to uphold freedom of speech.

Prior to a more recent meeting of U of T Divest in January 2016, the university’s Office of the Vice President, Human Resources & Equity sent a letter to the JDL threatening to issue a notice of trespass should their members not “comply with university policies.”

Campus groups such as IOC and Hillel have distanced themselves from the disruptive tactics exercised by the JDL in opposition to BDS. These groups, however, feel strongly that BDS should not continue. Both Fishman and Benezrah suggest that the movement is anti-Semitic.

Pro-Palestinian protest in Washington DC. CC Flickr by Stephen Melkisethian.
Pro-Palestinian protest in Washington DC. CC Flickr by Stephen Melkisethian.

“The intent of those employing BDS language is not to resolve the conflict or to promote reconciliation, but rather single out Israel — and Israel alone — and challenge the Jewish state’s right to be treated with the same standard of fairness applied to any other democracy in the world,” says Benezrah.

Sirri maintains that assertions of anti-Semitism in the BDS movement are categorically false, as the movement targets the state of Israel, not Jewish people. Jewish voices, he says, are part of the diverse group of people who support BDS.

Jens Hanssen, associate professor in the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations and a supporter of the BDS movement, also denies the notion that BDS is anti-Semitic. Hanssen acknowledges that many countries violate human rights, but does not believe this precludes the BDS movement from justly criticizing Israel.

“I’m all for an overthrow of the Saudi government. I’d sign any petition. When they behead a Palestinian poet, that’s terrible. But I don’t know why I should wait for my critique of the state of Israel until Saudi Arabia is some form of democracy or when China is no longer exploiting its Apple workers.”

UTAM holdings

U of T Divest’s primary target is the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM), the entity that manages the university’s investments, including in Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Hewlett-Packard.

On March 3, Hanseen and over 130 faculty members put out a press release and petition announcing their support for U of T Divest’s call for the university to remove its holdings from these companies.

At that time, Natalie Rothman, associate professor of history who signed the petition and press release, told The Varsity that faculty should be critical of the university and its investments. “As faculty we have a responsibility to ask difficult questions about how our university upholds its own standards of ethical conduct,” she said.

According to the Governing Council Policy on Social and Political Issues with respect to University Divestment, a Governing Council review committee determines the “extent and significance of the University’s investment in a particular entity” and “the degree to which the entity itself is involved in the undesirable activity,” which is generally ten per cent of the entity’s revenues.

Fishman, who served on U of T’s Governing Council from 2012 to 2014, and will be returning to the Governing Council in July, believes that there is “a zero per cent chance” of these divestment aims succeeding.

“[T]he percentage of those companies’ activities that take place in Israel is not high enough to have a divestment trigger,” claims Fishman, “If what the BDS people really wanted was actually for the university to divest from this company, they wouldn’t focus on Israel. Maybe they would mention it, but what they would… really focus [on] is the much larger investment it has in other sketchy areas.”

Aidan Swirsky, a second-year University College student, Israel engagement intern with Hillel, and the external officer for IOC, proposed a motion at the UTSU’s special general meeting (SGM) earlier this year to support “ethical divestment,” regardless of country or region. The motion called for the UTSU to lobby UTAM to divest from “any company that is found to profit from human rights violations, labour violations, especially those involving children, sweatshops or undocumented workers, war and weapons manufacturing, and/or the creation of environmental disasters.” This was in the wake of the UTSU’s discussions over a BDS proposal that occurred earlier in the year. The motion has been forwarded to the Board of Directors after the SGM failed to meet quorum.

The future

The House of Commons motion condemning BDS has spurred conversations about the movement among the Canadian public and within the national media.

Sirri calls the motion “shocking and deplorable.” He says that it is an example of the Liberal government reneging on their commitment to end former Prime Minister “Harper’s policies of fear and censorship, bullying and intimidation… [and] to back, ultimately, an apartheid state.”

Fishman supports the motion. “I think that all Canadians should be pleased to see Parliament condemn a movement that targets and harasses a certain sector of Canadians,” he says.

Divided though they remain on BDS and its demands, both opponents and proponents of the movement are eager to see a peaceful conclusion to the conflict in Israel and Palestine.

“I’d like to see peace and Israelis and Palestinians live happily in one state,” Hanssen says, “We’re getting further away from it, you might think, with the entire Middle East up in flames. But, the one light that I do see is the BDS movement. It’s [one of] the only good things that comes out [of] this whole mess.”

“I’d like to see peace and Israelis and Palestinians live happily in one state. We’re getting further away from it, you might think, with the entire Middle East up in flames. But, the one light that I do see is the BDS movement. It’s the only good things that comes out this whole mess.”

On the other hand, Swirsky supports a two-state solution as well as reparations paid to those who were displaced because of the 1947 war, and he calls upon Israel to do more to protect Palestinian rights.

“I believe that as the side with more power currently, it is on Israel to stand up for its future as a Jewish and democratic state by demolishing the settlements, integrating their inhabitants into Israel proper and allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that is not terribly hamstrung by security measures,” Swirsky says.

Although there appears to be little movement towards an end to the conflict in the region, Sa’adeh remains optimistic, saying, “we measure the progress of the BDS movement, because it’s an international campaign, [by] how much momentum it gains internationally, by how many people endorse it, and under what circumstances people endorse it around the world.”

“[T]he rise of the BDS movement and the momentum it has gained throughout these years makes me hopeful. Yes, apartheid will end, just like apartheid in South Africa did end. And yes, equal rights should be granted for everyone and will be granted,” he says. “That’s the only logical and sustainable solution for everyone.”

Speaking to the activism on campus, Sa’adeh adds, “I think if this is an indicator of something, this is an indicator of expansion and successes of the BDS movement, and think that’s our point to move forward on the work we do.”

Only time will tell how and when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may end, and what influence the BDS movement may have on the region. In the meantime, U of T is without a doubt at a critical juncture, in which its investments are increasingly scrutinized by its students, its faculty, and the national and international communities.

The global BDS movement makes three demands of Israel that together form the core objective of the movement. See what they are here.

Timeline of BDS activism at Canadian universities

A perfect storm

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t only takes  a brief walk around campus to realize how thoroughly marijuana has worked its way into university life. Flyers that advertise cannabis culture events are stapled to soft boards, vaporizers peek out of pockets and backpacks, and the unmistakable smell of pot smoke seeps from alleyways and the windows of fraternities.

Further west into Kensington Market, the air thickens with marijuana smoke; dispensaries and head shops line the crowded streets. Beyond Kensington, cannabis culture shops continue to populate Yonge Street, Bloor Street, and Queen Street West.

The pervasiveness of marijuana use throughout the city is a perfect example of how Canadian criminal law — which prohibits recreational cannabis use — is not always sufficient to stamp out the behaviours it inhibits. Yet, a storm is brewing within the hallowed halls of Parliament: a brand new cannabis regulation system may on the horizon.

When the Liberal Party of Canada pledged to legalize marijuana during their 2015 election campaign, many welcomed the idea. Now after taking office, the Liberal government seems intent upon keeping its word.

The government has stated it will “legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana,” and it has appointed Honorable Bill Blair, Liberal Member of Parliament and former Toronto Chief of Police, to spearhead the project.

Support of the masses

Many university students stand in favour of this proposition. “I don’t think it is right that the government can decide what we want to put in or do to our bodies,” explains Serena*, a third-year student at Innis College. “If we are legally allowed to poison ourselves with alcohol and cigarettes, then I think it should be [okay] for us to be able to have a toke or two on a Saturday night.”

“I absolutely believe marijuana should be legalized,” agrees Jenny*, a second-year student at Ryerson University. “It has been proven to improve a growing list of mental illnesses and physical ailments; it allows for many to ‘cope’ with the reality inherited from a corrupt, and otherwise socially unjust society; and it expands the mind to a point of untapped potential.”

These attitudes coincide with a recorded growth of acceptance and tolerance for cannabis use in Canada. An estimated 43 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 have tried cannabis at least once in their lifetime, and a November 2015 poll revealed that 59 per cent of Canadians support its legalization, regulation, and taxation.

Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity
Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity

Dr. Patricia Erickson, professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Toronto and scientist emerita in public health and regulatory policy at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), has recently been tracing marijuana use in Canada. She states that the trend toward tolerance of cannabis has been called a ‘phenomenon of normalization’ — not only because of its prevalence but also due to an increased cultural tolerance among non-users for the activity.

“[There is] more willingness to see it as an activity that doesn’t necessarily go with being a deviant or being involved in other types of illegal activities,” Erickson explains. She emphasizes that normalization is restricted to cannabis use that does not interfere with regular activities, which means that ‘stoners’ or chronic users may still be looked down upon by their peers.

If the government is serious about legalizing marijuana, it will still need to overcome many obstacles, regardless of the apparent public support. It will take cautious consideration of how cannabis regulation will affect all domains, in order to responsibly see the project through to completion.

Locked up

Laws pertaining to all illegal drugs are included within the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). The CDSA is a federal statute that outlines all prohibitions, penalties, and procedures related to the prosecution of drug-related offences.  It classifies substances by ‘schedules’ according to severity , and cannabis, its preparations, and its derivatives are listed as Schedule II substances.

Cannabis-related offences in the CDSA include possession, trafficking, importing and exporting, and production. Many of these offences carry mandatory minimum penalties of one or two years imprisonment, especially if there are aggravating circumstances — such as  a public safety and health hazard or the involvement of persons under the age of 18. If a person is convicted of trafficking or of importing or exporting cannabis, they can potentially receive a prison sentence of 14 years.

Nevertheless, many individuals remain unaware of the prohibitions. Part of Erickson’s work has involved interviews with marijuana users whose testimonies reflect the extent of their awareness of the law.

“Many people we talked to weren’t aware that it was actually still illegal to possess cannabis,” Erickson says. “It’s sort of de facto legalized in their minds, they’re not going to get arrested or be bothered. Which, when you consider the number of users versus the number of people taken to court, they’re probably reasonably accurate.”

“It’s sort of de facto legalized in their minds, they’re not going to get arrested or be bothered. Which, when you consider the number of users versus the number of people taken to court, they’re probably reasonably accurate.”

Despite the federal government’s newfound commitment to legalization, criminal penalties are still being enforced for marijuana-related offences. In many cases, prosecutors continue to seek convictions and imprisonment, even for relatively minor offences, like possession for personal use.

Establishments that arouse the suspicions of police are also being shut down. In January 2016, Toronto police raided Good Weeds Lounge and charged the owners with possession and trafficking.

Alongside vaporizers, the lounge was known for selling marijuana, resins, and extracts. The raid came less than two weeks after a Vice News article — which featured an interview with the lounge’s owners — lauded the unbridled success of recreational marijuana shops in Toronto.

Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity
Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity

Another similar incident occurred in 2015, when the police closed down Melanheadz, a vape lounge that had been selling cannabis, extracts, and edibles without a license.

Jenny recounts two occasions on which she had been apprehended for marijuana-related infractions. The first time, she was high, and her partner, who had quit smoking marijuana the previous year, was driving her to his parents’ house. When they were pulled over for a random spot-check, an officer confiscated Jenny’s joint and let them go.

On the second occasion, the police asked to inspect Jenny’s vehicle, and they discovered cannabis residue left behind by Jenny’s partner’s friend in the backseat.

She was questioned and released with a warning, but Jenny was shaken — particularly because the officers had told her they had a file on her person from the previous incident.“Since then I have had a pretty sour taste in my mouth concerning those in authority, and their awareness about natural substances which alleviate health conditions,” Jenny says.

Lawyer Steven Tress, who practices criminal and immigration law in Toronto, has experience with marijuana-related cases. The majority of his criminal law clients have been non-violent grow-op offenders, who began growing cannabis for sale in their homes in order to ease financial troubles.

He hints at a problem inherent to the current criminalization framework: the law as it stands may target some people who are not particularly harmful or who have not committed very egregious acts.

“Almost all of the clients in that industry are not what the public would characterize as criminals,” Tress says. “They are just guys who are in financial trouble, they heard of this thing, and they decided to take the risk. And then they get caught, and you have to deal with a potential criminal record.”

In a similar vein, Erickson criticizes the current system’s rigidity, inefficiency, and injustice. She emphasizes that it shows little mercy for offenders even when they are associated with respectable operations.

“You’re putting resources into the punishment side, you’re getting no benefit from taxes, and you’re funding, in some cases, violent criminal organizations,” Erickson says. “Or, you might be going after some of the so-called mom and pop growers tucked around that, really, are often connected with the dispensaries, but they are providing services for sick people.”

“Criminal law is such a blunt instrument, isn’t it?” she adds.

The devil’s in the details

Shifting regulation of marijuana out of the crime world is easier said than done; the complexities of marijuana-related laws confuse and convolute the drug’s future trajectory.

First, there is a common confusion between decriminalization and legalization. Decriminalization would only remove criminal penalties related to a substance, while legalization would also provide a legal framework for its supply and consumption.

Though the term ‘legalization’ is favoured by the media, many experts prefer to use ‘legal regulation’ to describe the ways in which governments can control substances, when they are no longer entangled with criminality.

The landscape of legal regulation in Canada is perplexing at best. In addition to the criminal provisions listed in the CDSA, medical marijuana regulations present an entirely different beast.

Lisa Wong/The Varsity
Lisa Wong/The Varsity

Currently, the only legal way to obtain cannabis in Canada is legally though a medical professional. This allows patients to order medical cannabis through licensed Canadian producers, which are regularly inspected by Health Canada.

Rigorous and expensive government standards, however, have dashed the hopes of many potential producers; only 29 licensed Canadian medical marijuana producers are still in business.

These licensing restrictions were put into place by the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), which came into effect June 2013 and replaced the previous Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR).

Unlike the liberal conditions of the MMAR, the MMPR prohibited growth of medical marijuana outside the Health Canada licensing framework. It invalidated all previously issued licenses that enabled patients to grow their own medicine or designate others to do so on their behalf.

This sparked a court challenge to the MMPR under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the case Allard et al v. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.

The argument was that a patient’s health was compromised by allowing them to purchase only from producers that may not have adequate supply, may not carry the appropriate strain for their medical needs, or may not price products within the patient’s means.

While the court deliberated, an immediate injunction was issued; it enabled both the MMPR and the MMAR to operate simultaneously, but it still did not allow every medical user to grow their own product.

In late February 2016, the court ruled that the MMPR was in violation of the Charter and thus struck it down. The declaration of invalidity of the MMPR has been suspended for six months in order to give the government time to concoct a replacement framework of regulation.

To add to the legal and regulatory confusion, different interpretation and selective enforcement of CDSA regulations have occurred at the provincial level. The 2015 Ontario decision in R. v. Vu eliminated the six-month mandatory minimum penalty of production for the purposes of trafficking marijuana when the operation does not exceed 200 plants, but the ruling only applies within the province’s borders. Prior to this, a British Columbia provincial court judge refused to issue a mandatory minimum sentence, letting the accused go instead.

The government will need to sort out these inconsistencies when formulating new laws. If legal regulation of marijuana does occur, it will lead to a sea of change in Canadian law.

“People have talked about legalization ever since I’ve been in the field, but nobody has ever got to the point in Canada of putting out a blueprint,” says Erickson. “There’s never been a discussion of what [would happen] if we actually didn’t punish at all, but in fact, provided a legal system of availability.”

“There’s never been a discussion of what [would happen] if we actually didn’t punish at all, but in fact, provided a legal system of availability.”

Experts from different fields are in favour of legalization for a variety of reasons. Ronan Levy is the director and general counsel of Canadian Cannabis Clinics, the leading group of medical marijuana clinics in the country. He states that most individuals within the company support legal regulation. “Not, by any stretch, because we are zealous advocates of marijuana,” Levy explains. “Rather, we think legalization is a pragmatic and rational response to life in our times.”

Levy lists several potential benefits of legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use, including government tax revenues, diverting individuals away from the correctional system, and ensuring that the cannabis being provided to consumers is clean and free from lacing.

Others are more cautious in their approach to the drug. “I do think there’s reason to seriously consider de-criminalizing possession and consumption of small amounts of marijuana,” explains Vincent Chiao, assistant professor at U of T’s Faculty of Law. He adds, however, that he does not think legalization should lead to a “wild west” approach to marijuana. “Getting a clearer picture of the social and medical risks of marijuana consumption, in all its forms, and at various levels of consumption, is also important, as that will inform how to regulate and/or tax the industry,” Chiao says.

Tress also mentions that reducing the number of criminal charges for marijuana would have a positive effect on the court system; it would decrease the backlog of cases, as well as the financial cost of seeing charges through to conviction.

The realization of changes like this could shake Canada’s legal system to its core, which is why Chiao advises that progress should proceed with caution. “The devil is very much in the details here,” he says.

For some, the details are a bleak prospect. “I find that pot enthusiasts are quick to be in favour of legalization without considering the increased costs that would subsequently follow,” says Polly*, a fourth-year cinema studies student. “I’m certain that the government would seize the opportunity to tax the sale of marijuana, whether to deter its use, or simply capitalize on opportunity. Legalization means regulation, which means higher cost, restricted access for the general public, and greater punishment attributed to illegal sales.”

An international outlook

As the policy laundry list continues to grow, the government will be wise to look to others for help.

Canada is certainly not the first to make a move towards cannabis regulation. Various methods and philosophies have resulted in unique consequences for jurisdictions that have previously tackled cannabis regulation.

Perhaps most notorious for cannabis regulation is the Netherlands, which has been operating on a system of limited sale and use for nearly 40 years. Contrary to popular belief, however, marijuana remains technically illegal for the Dutch, with criminal prohibitions on cultivation and wholesale distribution.

Dutch law permits the establishment of licensed ‘coffeeshops’ or weed cafes that can sell small quantities of cannabis to buyers over the age of 18. Though the Netherlands appears to be tightening regulations in recent years, a 2015 survey found that 70 per cent of residents support looser restrictions on the cultivation of marijuna plants.

In Portugal, on the other hand, marijuana and all other drugs are decriminalized. Individuals found to be in possession of recreational drugs are treated as patients rather than offenders and encouraged to seek rehabilitation; there are still restrictions on the quantity one can possess for personal use though. Most strikingly, selling and producing marijuana and other drugs remains entirely illegal, meaning that the drug trade remains confined to precarious black market operations.

In 2014, Colorado became the first US state to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes. In 2015, the state’s total legal recreational and medicinal sales topped out at an estimated $996.2 million; the government ended up raking in more than $135 million in sales tax and licensing fees.

Since then, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC have followed suit. The legalization movement of medical marijuana in California has been in effect for two decades; it brings in an estimated $1 billion in yearly sales and is still picking up speed.

Colorado provides an interesting case study though, because it highlights both the positive and negative effects of legal cannabis regulation, many of which have yet to be measured in conclusive studies.

For example, the immense consumer demand for food products infused with cannabis was an unexpected effect of legalization. In 2014, over 2.85 million cannabis cookies, brownies, and other edibles were sold in commercial stores.

Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity
Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity

This soon proved problematic for regulators, who did not anticipate the need to indicate the amount of cannabis that could be legally included within a single serving size. After several cases of overdose, Colorado scrambled to limit the amount of cannabis per serving.

This demonstrates the complexity inherent in cannabis regulation, and the extensive maneuvering it will take to iron out the kinks of a comprehensive policy.

In Canada, the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments further complicates the situation. While criminal law is under federal jurisdiction, other spheres like healthcare and property are left to the provinces.

According to Tress, this could lead to significant disparities in legal regulation and its effects across the country.“I have a feeling that it will be left to the provinces to deal with it,” he states. “And then the problem is, different provinces have different rules… I think working out that mechanism is going to be the most problematic.”

Erickson highlights the legal challenges Canada may face on the international stage, as a signatory of the United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

This treaty might restrict Canada’s ability to legally regulate cannabis, a sticky situation that the US has bypassed because its changes in drug policy have only been made at the state level. Legalization in Canada is being spearheaded by the federal government though, which means that it will not be able to avoid the international implications.

Business is blazing

Considering the potential profits of regulation — as exemplified by some US states — its implementation will likely have an impact on the Canadian economy.

Seeing as how the demand for cannabis is not currently subsiding, its underground economy will continue to flourish, so long as it is remains illegal.

In some cases, the illegal sale of weed is elaborately planned and executed with high quality customer service. Recounting her best experience purchasing cannabis, Polly describes the sophistication of the industry in New York City. 

“The courier industry runs a sort of underground cartel there when it comes to weed,” Polly says. “If you know the right people, you can have special, unmarked packages delivered to your doorstep. If you’re not in a rush, the dealer comes to your place with a menu, tells you what sort he’s selling, and what sort of high you’ll get. It feels more like an authentic transaction than it does in Canada, to be honest.”

“It’s an elegant ordeal too — there are no dime bags like you get here,” Polly adds. “The product comes in a pill bottle, and it’s [labelled] according to the strain and the type of high you’ll get.”

Serena has had positive experiences obtaining marijuana for medical use through two Canadian compassion club memberships that require her be authorized by a medical practictioner.

“The clubs I go [to] pride themselves on quality and know what they are selling, which helps users with specific needs get what they want,” she says. “Purchasing cannabis through clubs also allows the user to go back to the club and return something if the quality is not up to par, or the effects do not assist their disability.”

If a legal supply of weed is to be made available in Canada for consumer purchase, who will be allowed to sell it needs to be considered first. As it stands, business-minded people are already hedging their bets on the regulatory framework  that might be adopted — and getting ready to pounce.

Several recent proposals reflect a ‘big-box’ retail outlook on the industry. For instance, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne has suggested that it would be prudent to sell cannabis through the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which is the regulatory system already in place for the sale of alcohol in the province.

Shoppers Drug Mart has also expressed their interest in dispensing medical marijuana from their pharmacies, an announcement that caused comedy television series This Hour Has 22 Minutes to imagine the imminent sale of ‘Life Brand marijuana.’

Tress warns of the problems with price control, if the government leaves marijuana in the hands of big businesses. “If you’re setting up pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, and they’re going to get into it, they control their own prices,” he says. “If they start charging too much, it might be cheaper to buy it on the street. Then you’re back into the crime scene.”

Smaller businesses, especially those already involved with the cannabis industry, will likely suffer if legal regulation of marijuana is controlled by large corporations.

Robin Ellins, proprietor of the cannabis culture shop Friendly Stranger, explains his outlook on the new regime: “We are looking to see a model that reflects the same type of legislation that currently governs craft brewers, with licenses for growers and retailers and proper age restrictions,” Ellins says. “The market should be allowed to thrive through thoughtful regulation and check systems, but still be in the hands of the cannabis industry and not taken over by large corporate grow-ops and narrow distribution channels.”

Paul Eichgrun is the co-owner of Cloud 9, a cannabis culture shop on Queen Street West that has been operating for 12 years. Up a steep slope of steps and tucked behind a popular burger chain, Eichgrun runs his business in a narrow, well-lit space; he sells pipes, bongs, vaporizers, and other products to cannabis enthusiasts.

He emphasizes that Cloud 9 is, first and foremost, a small business. “This is no different than me selling shoes, really,” he says. “It’s location, it’s price, it’s all those things. That’s how we’ve always looked at it.”

Predicting the course of commerce, Eichgrun feels that businesses like his will grow exponentially once marijuana laws are relaxed and the stigmas diminish. “Of course, like anything else, there will be more and more new retailers, and there will be a battle to see who survives,” he says. “I’m probably guessing there will be hundreds and hundreds in that first or second year. That’ll filter down to an appropriate number for sales. The rest won’t survive.”

“Of course, like anything else, there will be more and more new retailers, and there will be a battle to see who survives.”

For different reasons, the number of coffeeshops licensed to sell marijuana in the Netherlands has recently decreased.

Last year, 28 coffeeshops in Amsterdam were closed, due to violations of the distance requirement they must be from schools. Traditionally, the city was pretty lax about enforcing the distance rules, but it has recommitted to cracking down on crime and nuisance — including cannabis use among youth — in exchange for an exemption from the national ban on non-residents attending coffeeshops.

As of January 2016, there are an estimated 160 coffeeshops still operating in Amsterdam, but this number is constantly in flux. Canadian businesses would be wise to expect similar volatility in the marijuana industry, especially at the onset of a new regulatory regime.

There is also the matter of what will happen within the medical marijuana industry. Since the MMPR was struck down, the government has been on a tight deadline to come up with a new framework. Depending on what they cook up, the new policy may have significant impacts for marijuana-related businesses.

Legal professionals have been working on the matter of medical marijuana since long before the MMPR came into force. Lawyers Hugo Alves and Michael Lickver are two of  Canada’s leading advisors on the medical marijuana industry. Lickver works as a corporate commercial, mergers and acquisitions, securities, and corporate finance lawyer and associate at Canadian law firm Bennett Jones.

Lickver inadvertently became involved with the medical marijuana industry in his first year of practice, when he agreed to help a client on a pro bono basis; this was done on the condition that the client would return for future representation when he could pay for it. The client eventually went on to become the CEO of a medical marijuana company and, staying true to his word, marched straight back to Lickver’s office.

“That was a perfect storm,” Lickver says. “That first file was big. We were raising a couple million dollars for a start-up medical marijuana producer who had just submitted their application.”

Subsequently, Lickver and Alves devoted themselves to studying the processes that characterize the medical marijuana industry and familiarized themselves with all parties involved. Beyond production, the industry is booming with dealers, research laboratories, e-commerce specialists, and security consultants. The lawyers’ goal was to reach a more comprehensive understanding of the industry, by getting involved in as many aspects as possible.

Today, Lickver and Alves run the leading corporate law practice representing the medical marijuana industry in Canada.

When considering the future of laws on cannabis, Lickver emphasizes that the regulatory aspect must not be taken lightly. “Regulating distribution, and ensuring that those who are licensed to sell it and produce it are the only ones doing it, without creating monopoly, [and] also creating fair access to everybody who wants to get involved,” he says. “That’s probably the biggest problem.”

If the system is regulated properly, Lickver foresees overwhelmingly positive results. Particularly, he views regulation as a way to reduce the influence of the black market.

“I think black markets will always exist, [but] the better the system we implement, the smaller the black market will become,” Lickver says. “If we implement a system that restricts access, or prices it out of regular consumers’ range, then those are two things that the black market has an advantage [on] right now… If we can tackle those two large issues and make sure that it’s affordable, and people can access it easily, then I don’t see a massive need for the black market, at least to serve the domestic population in Canada.”

“I think black markets will always exist, [but] the better the system we implement, the smaller the black market will become.”

For medical purposes

As the director of Canadian Cannabis Clinics, Levy has worked with patients that have a vast array of physical and mental health problems. Cannabis has been used to alleviate symptoms of a number of different conditions, including pain-related ailments, neurological conditions, spasticity disorders, cancer- and chemotherapy-related pain, and epilepsy.

The typical medical marijuana patient at the clinic is in their late 40s or early 50s, suffers from a chronic health condition, and comes in for treatment having little to no prior knowledge of cannabis.

“Because we screen patients carefully to ensure recreational drug users are not getting prescriptions, the people you see in our waiting rooms are absolutely not the type of people you’d expect to see in a cannabis clinic,” Levy explains. “They are your neighbours, brothers, sisters, [and] parents.”

Jenny outlines the many ways in which cannabis has helped her cope with lifelong physical and mental health problems. Throughout her life, she has had problems with insomnia, which significantly effected her memory, attention, and cognitive skills. Jenny went through counseling every year of her life and lagged three grades behind her classmates in literacy. Later in her life, marijuana became an unexpected solution to her problems.

“I found myself using marijuana for recreational purposes but accidentally discovered that eliminated my life-long insomnia,” Jenny says. “I told my doctor that marijuana helped me to sleep soon after I discovered its effects and she advised me to continue using it as sleeping aid. She told me that sleeping pills are highly addictive and cause short-term memory loss, so she never prescribed them to me. I have used marijuana every day since she suggested I continue.”

Serena also says that medical marijuana has helped her cope with her physical ailments. “I have a severe back issue acknowledged by doctors, and the use of cannabis is very effective for my pain management as well as stress,” she says.

Yet cannabis is also associated with negative side effects, particularly in youth and chronic users. According to a recent CAMH study, an estimated 380,000 Canadians are affected by abuse of or dependence on cannabis, and between 76,000 and 95,000 people each year receive treatment for cannabis-related health problems.

Other risks related to cannabis use include psychological and mild physical dependence, an increased risk of developing respiratory problems and lung cancer, and the impairment of memory, attention, and complex processing. These complications are associated with heavy use, particularly by those under 25 years of age.

Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity
Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity

Polly can relate to these complications. “The reality is that whether it’s vapour, cigarette smoke, or weed, it’s smoke inhalation, which is bad for your lungs,” she says. “I have chronic bronchitis as a result of my relatively brief stint with marijuana, and because marijuana is illegal, the awareness is pretty low. People assume that because it’s not a cigarette, it’s not bad for you.”

Dr. Tomas Paus, senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute and Tanenbaum chair in population neuroscience and professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Toronto, has extensive experience studying the impact of drugs on the brain.

When comparing cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco, Paus states it is “very clear that all three have an impact on health.”

Paus is concerned about the potential association between chronic cannabis use and the risk of psychosis, particularly in relation to schizophrenia.“It’s clear that the acute effects of cannabis in certain individuals, even just smoking pot, can induce psychotic symptoms,” he explains.

Referring to a report his team published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of Psychiatry in 2015, Paus explains how irregularities in brain structure were observed in young men who had experimented with cannabis before the age of 16, and that they demonstrated an increased risk of developing schizophrenia. These findings are congruent with several similar studies performed within the field.

Paus cautions against simplifying the association between marijuana use and schizophrenia though. “It’s not that cannabis causes schizophrenia. There are so many different reasons why someone develops schizophrenia, both in the genes and the environment of that person, stressful events,” he says. “Cannabis is one contributing factor in some people.”

The causal relationship between cannabis use and the development of schizophrenia is also unclear, because it is possible some patients may actually seek out cannabis to cope with the troubling symptoms of emerging psychosis.

The risks of excessive use cannot be ignored though. Levy states that, while it is virtually impossible to overdose on cannabis to the point of death, many users are hospitalized due to anxiety attacks or mental health issues resulting from excessive use.

“[The] risk [of overdose] is magnified when edibles and other extracts are available, as these products have much higher concentrations,” Levy says. “Because the plasma levels of THC are less predictable when using edibles or extracts, the likelihood of taking too much increases.”

As part of the legalization process, the government must focus on educating the public about the potential risks of cannabis and encourage responsible and mindful use. In order to do this effectively, Paus says that the government can adopt strategies similar to those used to regulate alcohol and tobacco, including public health campaigns and the education of medical professionals.

Of course, as Erickson points out, the medical marijuana industry is a bit of an anomaly compared to tobacco and alcohol. This is something that will have to be accounted for within the regulations.

Both Erickson and Paus caution against using a ‘one size fits all’ message in an attempt to scare away potential users, especially young people.

“Another challenge will be how much you actually have harm reduction education in the schools… All we’ve told them so far is that it’s really dangerous,” Erickson explains. “[Now] we have a stronger foundation to do harm reduction education when we say, ‘the product is there, you’ll have to make healthy choices, think about it.’ Not just ‘don’t do it.’”

Erickson says that most users of marijuana are likely to be responsible; the government will have to ensure they are not placing undue restrictions on users, who, for the most part, are responsible in their usage.

“For most substances subject to misuse, there will be a relatively small group that will get into trouble with them, and the majority will use responsibly,” she explains. “No one wants to be a drug addict and have their lives ruined. Most people will use in moderation.”

“No one wants to be a drug addict and have their lives ruined. Most people will use in moderation.”

Eichgrun believes there should still be mechanisms in place to actively discourage retailers from selling to minors though. “There should be strict fines to any retailer who plays games,” Eichgrun emphasizes. “I don’t mean a slap on the wrist, I mean shut them down right away.”

Your move, Canada

As it stands today, the future of cannabis regulation remains uncertain. The tides are turning, and now it’s up to the government to follow through.

“Prohibition has been a very small blip on the timeline of reported cannabis usage,” Lickver says. “I think we are approaching the end of that, and there will be a global tipping point.”

“[Canada] had a very strong reputation for public health, for healthy cities, social determinants of health, [which] didn’t really jive with our pretty aggressive stance towards drug use,” Erickson explains. “I think now, we’re getting back in sync.”

From multiple perspectives, the forecast for the new regime is overwhelmingly positive. The good news for current users is that this may finally result in widespread recognition of the positive effects cannabis can have on health.

“My family recognized the positive changes marijuana brought to my life and began to encourage my [use of] it,” explains Jenny, recalling the substantial change in perspective from those around her. “Witnessing the level of success I was reaching inspired their shift in attitudes – prior to my use, they were against any drug.”

“When we first started, it was illegal to talk about cannabis,” explains Ellins. “When the laws do change we expect to see an even more accepting society, that will no longer be looking over their shoulder for fear of repercussions.”

Overall, Lickver is optimistic about the project’s future trajectory. “In five years, I think we’ll have the best-regulated marijuana legislation and economy in the world, producing the highest quality product,” he predicts. “I believe that we as Canadians, the federal government, the provincial government, will not rush this, and will work slowly and create a cohesive system.”

Yet, it is clear that the government has extensive work to do in order to adequately address some of the more concerning aspects of regulation. This will be a meticulous and time-consuming process, if they wish to be successful.

While comprehensive legislative change may take several years, cannabis culture shops show no sign of closing, and students will continue to light up. The law is often slow to catch up to society’s reality. For now, we wait.

*Name has been changed at the individual’s request.

Correction (April 5th, 2016): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Dr. Patricia Erickson is an adjunct professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Toronto. In fact, she is a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Toronto.

A constitutional black hole

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the four or so decades  since the term ‘Internet’ broke into the lexicon, technology has become irrevocably embedded into our everyday lives. Language scrambles to describe the rapidly developing tech industry.

In some cases, language fails to express concepts emerging from the technological world. There is perhaps no greater example of this than ‘the cloud.’

The cloud refers to remote servers. Rather than storing your data locally on your hard drive, you can store data remotely on servers owned by someone else. When you use Google Drive, Dropbox, or iCloud, you are using cloud servers to store data elsewhere, saving space on your computer so it runs efficiently.

It seems like a good deal, especially since, given the amount of space offered on free accounts, many people will never need to pay for cloud space.

Yet the concept of storing our data in a ‘cloud’ is problematic; it makes it seems like our data is somehow floating in space. It is rare that we are asked to picture the physical structure of the Internet — a material system designed to move binary information, or bits, from one place to another. In reality, ‘the cloud’ is a tangible network of computers. The computers are connected by bundles of fibre optic cables that run across land and sea, and by radio towers receiving and sending wireless signals. Its near seamless operation leaves our data as out of sight and out of mind.

Similarly, conceptualizing the scope and physicality of mass surveillance is challenging, as is acknowledging its consequences. But in our post-Snowden world, questioning the rhetorical power of the term ‘the cloud’ is important. Outsourcing our data is convenient, but it all too often exposes our information to security risks, and, more jarringly, to spying government agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA).

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As Canadians who often choose to store our data in the US, we should be concerned by the no holds barred approach of American intelligence and security agencies, and the near unrestricted access they are granted through cooperation with private corporations.

Increasingly, Canadian universities are outsourcing their email services to these companies in the name of convenience and affordability —  indeed, the services offered by Google and Microsoft far exceed those offered in-house by public institutions in quality, storage space, and features. Plus, they’re often free, while costly homegrown e-communications operations put a strain on IT departments and budgets. Nevertheless, there is a truth to be faced: outsourcing online communications comes with a distinct set of risks that put the privacy of thousands of students, staff, and faculty across the country at risk.

U of T outsources student email

In 2011, when U of T opted to outsource its student email services, both Microsoft and Google were courting Canadian universities with offers of limited-term free e-communications services.

Universities across the country were signing contracts with the two tech giants, and it was quickly becoming the norm to work with one of the two companies to get free student email and all the perks that come with it — including plenty of cloud-based storage.

The university took some measures to get students’ input on the change, including striking a consultation committee comprised of students, staff, and faculty. The university’s chief information officer, Robert Cook, issued a response to the findings in which he stated that if money were no object, the most “desirable route to follow” would be a U of T managed system.

“We have not pursued a detailed quotation, but it would obviously cost millions of dollars for hardware, software, system porting and ongoing development staff,” he wrote.

In a follow-up report issued by Cook in May of 2010, he specified that the estimated annual operating cost of maintaining in house UTORmail services for the 159 distributed email systems offered by different divisions at the university was roughly $1.44 million.

According to the students surveyed, the most highly desired email feature was a large storage quota, followed by an integrated calendar service, and online file storage. For faculty, who continue to use UTORmail, storage remains a major concern. Accounts typically have between 50 and 150 MB, opposed to the 50 GB to 1 TB typically available on outsourced systems. With so little space, users regularly have to empty their accounts in order to send and receive new messages, particularly if they contain large files.

Citing the ever-growing maintenance costs for UTORmail, the will of students, and preliminary research into outsourcing options, Cook recommended outsourcing email services to [email protected] with Microsoft Canada. The switch took place in September of 2011, with new students given Microsoft email accounts, and current students given the option to opt in or to keep their existing accounts. Soon, faculty will face the same decision.

“People weren’t raising hard questions”

Professor Andrew Clement from the Faculty of Information first heard that the university was considering moving staff and faculty emails to Microsoft services as well in the fall of 2013.

“It was mainly treated as an administrative change,” he recalls.

Several years prior, Clement had begun a research project on the movement of data between the United States and Canada, and the subsequent privacy implications and the risk of interception by the NSA. Knowing that Microsoft servers were housed in both the US and Canada, and that Microsoft was the first company to join the NSA’s PRISM program — which allows the security organization direct access to its data — Clement attended a town hall meeting on the potential switch to express his concerns.

Heidi Bohaker, a professor in the Department of History, also attended the meeting. Upon hearing that the new email service would be cloud-based, Bohaker recalls, “that raised a lot of interesting questions immediately to my mind, in terms of where the data is going to be stored.”

Bohaker then contacted Lisa Austin, a professor in the Faculty of Law, who also had concerns with the potential changes and connected Bohaker to Clement, who was organizing a ‘teach-in’ event in November to discuss the implications of outsourcing e-communications for faculty and staff.

The university had gone ahead with producing a comprehensive Information Risk and Risk Management Report on the proposal. “UTORmail, the University’s legacy institutional email service, is near end-of-life and requires significant investment to bring [it] up to current industry standards,” the report reads. It goes on to describe the success of the migration of student accounts to Microsoft services in 2011, with the stated objective of transitioning faculty and staff e-communications.

Clement contends that the university was “averse” to addressing risks from surveillance associated with migrating to cloud-based services. “People weren’t raising hard questions,” he recalls, “I think they… were very weak, and we shone a light on them.”

Clement also drew attention to the role of Microsoft employees in putting together the Privacy Impact Assessment cited in the report.

“[The university] got substantial help from Microsoft which is, in my view… quite inappropriate, for them to play such a strong role… so [Microsoft] actually wouldn’t want to draw attention to their participation in the PRISM program, or generally the surveillance risks,” he says.

Clement’s efforts to shed light on the privacy risks paid off — the university’s plans to migrate faculty and staff emails petered out, and UTORmail continues to provide centralized services for email addresses.

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Clement, Bohaker, and Austin united to produce the Seeing Through the Cloud report, released in 2015, which detailed outsourcing efforts across Canada, questioned the logic of Privacy Impact Assessments employed by universities in contracting Microsoft and Google, and highlighted the risks of outsourcing email services.

Of particular concern to Clement was the direct access that the NSA would have to Microsoft servers.

“If Microsoft was going to host the U of T email service in the US, then that’s all the communication — they [the NSA] don’t have to intercept it on the fly,” he describes, “Getting direct access to the server of Microsoft and others means they can go in at will and look back at previous emails… [T]his is a great deal more of a risk… and something that I thought needed to be debated on campus.”

“Getting direct access to the server of Microsoft and others means they can go in at will and look back at previous emails… [T]his is a great deal more of a risk… and something that I thought needed to be debated on campus”

The university struck a Faculty and Staff eCommunications Advisory Committee to submit a recommendation on email services. The committee recommended that the university negotiate a contract with Microsoft to extend UTmail+ to staff and faculty beginning with email and calendar services, although a small number of committee members did not endorse the recommendation and submitted a dissenting report. The committee also recommended that the university call for legislation to combat mass surveillance, develop an in-house encryption service, continue to offer UTORMail for divisions that opt out of UTmail+, and offer locally hosted file sharing.

Marden Paul, director of Planning, Governance, Assessment & Communications in the office of the Chief Information Officer, says that the university is still considering a number of factors in its decision making process. “We’ve heard from many faculty and staff members that the current communications and collaboration technologies don’t meet their needs, and for some time, the university has been working to assess the requirements for better tools,” he said in a statement to The Varsity. “The process has included in-depth assessments of privacy and security, analysis of risks and how to mitigate them, consultations with faculty and staff, review of reports from the IPC and other interested parties, and the overall benefits to be attained by university community from better tools.”

A national trend towards outsourcing

The university’s decision to outsource student email services came as part of a national trend towards outsourcing online communications in Canadian post-secondary institutions, beginning in 2006 with Lakehead University’s transition to Google Apps for Education.

The reasons cited by Canadian universities for the decision to outsource tended to centre around three main points: cut costs; students’ expectations of a faster, better service; and the depleting quality of older, in-house systems.

U of T was uniquely transparent during the process of outsourcing student email. The Information Risk/Risk Management Document remains publicly available for download on the Information + Services website. No other university can claim a publicly accessible Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA).

Despite this commendable transparency, the consultation process, like those at other universities, was insufficient. At several post-secondary institutions, students were asked to compare an “aging” in-house system with a state-of-the-art outsourced one; the option of an improved in-house system was not explored in depth and was consistently presumed to be prohibitively expensive, despite the absence of meaningful research.

Additionally, the university’s PIAs did not reflect the potential privacy risk of storing data in the United States (claiming the ‘similar risk’ argument, in which data stored in Canada and the US is presumed to be equally secure) and claimed that the level of privacy that should be expected was that of a postcard — that those using the service should accept the possibility their correspondence could be read, and behave accordingly. This sentiment stands in opposition to the Supreme Court of Canada’s statements that Canadians have the right to an expectation of privacy when it comes to their email.

John P. Dirks, a history professor and research assistant on the Seeing Through the Cloud report, recalls, “both in the PIAs and even in the contracts, but especially in the PIAs… there was a readiness to dismiss broader privacy concerns based on an assumption that while data is always shared between [Canada and the US]… Canada had a long-term intelligence sharing and information sharing protocol with the Americans… [The universities] were really dismissing it as a non-issue.”

“A constitutional black hole”

“From the legal policy standpoint, you can really see courts and legislatures struggling to keep up with the changes as they occur,” says Daniel Carens-Nedelsky, graduate student of law who worked with Austen to examine the legal policy at work in both Canada and the United States’ privacy regulations surrounding extra-national outsourcing.

The university’s decision to outsource e-communications services was based in part on the notion of the similar risk of state surveillance, and state access to, e-communications, regardless of whether data was stored in Canada or the US. The Seeing Through the Cloud report claims that this argument is based on “faulty assumptions, factual errors, and a surprisingly limited expectation for privacy in eCommunications.”

Carens-Nedelsky explains that the similar risk argument emerged from a 2005 Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) review, when a group of IBC customers issued a complaint over concerns about the USA PATRIOT Act, because the company was contracting in the US.

According to Carens-Nedelsky, the privacy commissioner found that the complainants concerns were legitimate, but that the Canadian government had a similar ability to access their information; and hence made the similar risk argument. The commissioner ruled that the focus should be on each individual contract, not on the country in which the data is being stored.

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The 2005 FIPPA ruling has been invoked widely and in a variety of cases. The argument is simple: it doesn’t matter where you store your information, the risk is the same. Yet, according to Austin and Carens-Nedelsky, this assumption is patently false.

“[Similar risk] is thoroughly incorrect but makes some sense coming from the FIPPA context,” explains Carens-Nedelsky. “What they’re used to dealing with is looking at company’s internal policies and contracts, [and ensuring that those are] properly protective of privacy. Are they abusing customers’ private information? Are they selling it to third parties? That’s what it’s designed to catch. It’s not designed to catch this comparative constitutional law question.”

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms limits the government’s ability to access individual’s private information. Yet the question remains, how best to deal with privacy protection across jurisdictions?

More troubling is that neither country’s constitutions protect the communications data of a non-American citizen that is stored in the US, or vice-versa. A Canadian resident whose data is stored in the US will not necessarily be granted protection from third party access. According to the Seeing Through the Cloud report, their data falls into “a constitutional black hole, where the constitutional protections of neither country apply.”

“We have this 2007 ruling that says when you’re not in Canada, you don’t have the constitution applied to you,” says Carens-Nedelsky. “You’re bound by whatever legal standards there are where you are. In the US, there was a corresponding ruling that said, US constitutional privacy protection [doesn’t] apply to non-American citizens, or people without substantial connection to the US”

According to Carens-Nedelsky, this black hole presents a major problem. “[The data] has no constitutional protection… when something has no constitutional protection, it doesn’t immediately mean the government can access it, but it means the government can write whatever legislation it wants and there will be no ability for judges to say that’s unconstitutional legislation,” he explains.

“[The data] has no constitutional protection… when something has no constitutional protection, it doesn’t immediately mean the government can access it, but it means the government can write whatever legislation it wants”

So what does this all mean for student and faculty privacy? “For academics in particular, there are some specific concerns around academic freedom,” says Carens-Nedelsky. “Both of ability to criticize the US government and… [there is concern for] exchange students from  countries who are writing very private confidential reports that may be critical of their own regime. [They] are writing in Canada on the presumption that this will be well protected… the risk that this could get out is material and worrying,” he says. “Academics routinely deal with highly confidential information [and] confidential sources… much [of] research works on the assumption that this will be held confidential. If you’re storing this information on US servers, that is not actually a statement you can make with any confidence.”

The physical internet

At the bottom of the legal uncertainty surrounding data movement between the US and Canada, is the concern that the US government is able to collect a vast amount of information from citizens of other countries. Email communications are easily intercepted by American institutions because of the flow of Internet data; a lot of international data passes through routers housed in the United States.

“We live in a post-Snowden world,” says Dawn Walker, a student at the Faculty of Information and a research assistant on the Seeing Through the Cloud report. “For most people, that means absolutely nothing but for other people, it’s totally changed how… they’re navigating the world and their relationship with their government and their relationship with the American government.”

All communication on the Internet is based on packet switching. Every piece of communication transmitted over the Internet — for example, an email — is broken down into a series of small packets upon sending. These packets contain both the content of the message, as well as several pieces of metadata, including a header with the message’s source and destination IP addresses.

The packet then moves through several routers which read the header to see where the packets are going and pass it to the next router on the way. Once the packets arrive at their destination, they are reassembled into the original message.

Boomerang routing is when packets begin and end their route in the same country, but pass through another one on the way. This often convoluted path is rarely the most efficient.

“[Boomerang routing] isn’t the fastest way to route data,” explains Clement, “It’s kind of a myth that the Internet routes to optimize the speed of transmission. More important than that is the arrangement that the various carriers make between each other as to who they hand off traffic to.”

Large carriers have vast numbers of routers inside large, unmarked buildings in major urban centres, which are linked to one another through fibre optic cables that can transmit tens of billions of bits per second. The decisions these companies make with respect to whether, and how they allow other carriers to connect to their networks, influence the paths that information takes as it is sent across the Internet.

Physically, the infrastructure of the Internet is both stunningly massive and virtually invisible, contained in bundles of wires and unremarkable buildings packed to the brim with computers, and packaged to consumers simply as ‘the cloud.’

Through the PRISM program, the NSA has access to stored Microsoft data, as well as stored data from Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple — this was the crux of the argument against outsourcing e-communications at U of T to Microsoft. But the NSA can also access data in motion through its programs that intercept communications while in transit.

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In order for the NSA to access data in transit, they have to engage with carriers who can create splitter sites. A copy of all data in transit is sent to these sites through the creation of new fibre infrastructure that supports surveillance. Clement’s IXmaps project serves to both illustrate Internet traffic and boomerang routing by showing the routes of various messages, and to identify NSA “listening posts” to show where users’ data is most likely being intercepted.

In the pursuit of countering terrorist activity, former NSA director General Keith B. Alexander adopted a “collect it all, tag it, store it” strategy according to a former US intelligence official quoted in The Washington Post in 2013, who added, “Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack.’”

Walker points out that upstream data capture by the NSA adds another layer to concerns over email outsourcing. “If your thing is on the Internet, it’s captured,” she says, “So is that the point of where you want to focus your attention here? Or do you want to focus on more technically secure email systems?”

Policy solutions

So what options are available to organizations? According to the Seeing Through the Cloud report, at least, U of T should keep its faculty email services in-house for the time being, while a conversation about the way forward takes place on campus and alternatives are seriously considered.

“What I would really like to see happen here at U of T is a really vigorous discussion about that,” says Bohaker. “With everything on the table, including… the value of our metadata.”

Aside from holding off on transitioning faculty e-communications, there’s also the possibility of letting students opt out of the outsourced services.

In order to address privacy concerns related to outsourcing, the report suggests institutions like U of T could regularly update PIAs, take measures to keep data local, and make risk assessment documentation public to ensure transparency.

In contrast to university reports related to outsourcing, Clement contends that in-house email services may be a viable option. British Columbia, for example, has developed cloud services for public institutions to store data in-province, where the outsourcing of data is provincially prohibited.

“It depends on the priorities of the university,” Clement explains. “If [U of T] decided that this actually was a priority, they could do it — they could bring back email services… They could develop as has happened in British Columbia… It’s not perfect, but there’s certainly options. It could be wound back if there was a will.”

Another option is to continue to use vendor services, revisit contracts, build policies that define stricter privacy requirements or create local infrastructure, and require vendors to keep data local. At the provincial level, as in British Columbia, politicians can craft policies to keep data local to better protect data security and privacy.

“There’s multiple challenges to privacy, to our civil liberties, to our public institutions when our data is not protected,” says Clement. “Universities do have a responsibility. If your university is not fulfilling that responsibility, then that I think becomes a concern.”

Looking forward

Like the term ‘the cloud,’ the term ‘email’ is misleading when you consider the way the Internet operates. We think of the postal service as relatively secure — we know it is illegal to open another person’s physical mail, and while it may be intercepted on the way to its destination, the risk is higher that it will simply get lost.

Often, we view our email with a similar expectation of privacy; but while the idea that email is ‘like a postcard’ fails to hold water from a policy standpoint, it may be a functional reality when it comes to the security of our data, and especially our metadata.

Bohaker notes that a lot of people seem to not care about their data being exposed to intelligence agencies.

“[O]ne of the responses I’ve had [to the Seeing Through the Cloud report] is people say, ‘well, I don’t do anything… that is problematic behaviour… [If] people want to look at my cat videos and my knitting blog, what’s the big deal? … I find [it] quite disconcerting because I don’t think people quite understand how privacy laws are necessary to protect us all.”

You may not care about being surveilled by the US government or other countries’ intelligence agencies because you have nothing to hide. But from a security perspective, when your data is stored on cloud servers there is a risk that your data could be exposed to others, which could include your peers or colleagues.

“Some [students] definitely are… at greater risk than others,” Clement says.

Privilege plays a major role in who can be less concerned about mass surveillance. Students from countries governed by authoritarian regimes, for example, have more cause to be concerned about Microsoft servers abroad. Students who are involved in activism have more cause to be concerned about their organizing being surveilled. And of course, faculty conducting particularly controversial research in the eyes of governing bodies would have cause to be concerned about freedom of thought if their e-communications data were stored remotely.

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“[E]ven if at the present time you don’t… particularly care about where your data goes and who’s looking at it, there might be a time when you do, and also, we’re not just individuals who have concerns about ourselves personally, but we’re concerned our friends, our family, our neighbours, the people we work with, and they may be at risk,” says Clement, adding, “If we don’t stand up for some basic rights, then we’re harming people we care about.”

“Even if at the present time you don’t… particularly care about where your data goes and who’s looking at it, there might be a time when you do”

Outsourcing email services may seem like a step forward for U of T — but is it really the future we want? The university’s agreement with Microsoft allows the company to move your data around the globe, excepting a few embargoed nations, and to have it on hand for the NSA. The physical infrastructure of the Internet puts our data in constant flux, with our metadata readily on hand for the peering eyes of government agencies and more.

While the problem, like the notion of the cloud, may seem intangible, it’s an infrastructural issue that relates to the way the technology that runs the Internet is built and the struggle of law and policy to catch up to its rapid development. The idea of the cloud obscures the reality that there is no cloud at all — there are only other computers, that together can store a lot of information in the same physical space. These are maintained by large corporations that can access your data with relative ease — and they can help other people access it, too.

Eliminating the spectacle of political campaigns

[dropcap]I’VE[/dropcap]  never watched Game of Thrones, but if I did, I figure it would look something like the February 13th Republican primary debate: politically chaotic, and distinctly medieval.

Maybe it was because of the red backdrop, or the look in Donald Trump’s eyes when slandering Jeb Bush, but something about that debate was eerily reminiscent of a more primitive period in human existence.

Apparently, others would disagree; something about Donald Trump and other loud-mouthed Republicans have captivated a fair portion of the American electorate. Their speeches lack any conceivable substance, and their credentials lack any prior political experience, but when narrowing the scope of their careers down to the performances they deliver onstage, even a thuggish business tycoon and a retired neurosurgeon can convince people that they deserve to be commander-in-chief.

It’s unsurprising, then, that U of T political science professor Ryan Hurl feels we’d be better off without the ability to visualize our political candidates. No more televised debates. No more political pep-rallies in Alabama hayfields. There would be no way of gauging a politician’s physical features or charismatic qualities until they’ve been elected to office. All we’d be left with are their names and political platforms delivered through radio or written word.

It paints quite the hypothetical: one that only a devoted political scientist would actually spend time thinking about, and one that’s difficult to refute. Imagine listening to Justin Trudeau discuss immigration policy over the radio without the faintest idea of what he looks like. How can we trust him? How do we know he’s not just a robot with a culturally ambiguous accent?

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are ones that we mostly derive from a candidate’s appearance. But that’s Hurl’s point. Physical appearance and charismatic qualities cloud our perception of political candidates. They allow us to form critical decisions around aspects of a candidate that don’t pertain to the job we’re electing them to do, and — considering the pseudo-Civil War partaking across the border — that’s a problem.

“When you have this face-to-face politics, it almost short-circuits the civilized, cultural aspects of our consciousness, and has the potential to tap into the deep evolutionary elements of how we respond to certain leaders,” Hurl says. “If this were a hundred-thousand years ago and we were deciding who’s going to be leader of the tribe in some primeval forest, then yes, quite possibly you’re going to be attracted to the person who’s bigger, stronger, and has more energy. The idea here is that modern technology — in a way — connects to some of those more primitive elements of human consciousness that we’re not always aware of.”


It would be hard to qualify a ‘golden era’ of politics in the west, but there’s something to be said for the time prior to the influx of modern technology, when physical attributes  — within the privileged group of Caucasian males that comprised the political class — did not play a major role in determining political status.

Hurl cites James Madison, co-author of the United States Constitution and fourth President of the United States, as an example. “In the nineteenth century in the United States, not many people could know that James Madison was a tiny little man who isn’t a very good public speaker… This is one way of thinking about it: James Madison, the tiny man with the squeaky, unattractive voice, could never be a leading politician now, or it seems unlikely.”

In fact, political scientists can pinpoint the exact date when unattractive politicians like Madison had their chances of winning elections squandered. September 26, 1960 was the date of the very first televised debate in a US presidential election, and it permanently changed the way voters perceived presidential nominees.

The debate was between republican nominee Richard Nixon and democratic nominee John F. Kennedy. At the time, the two politicians had relatively similar policies — increased health aid for older citizens, heightened national security measures, and promises to pummel the Soviet Union into oblivion if necessary. What differed, however, was the way the nominees relayed this information. Nixon had just recovered from a bad knee injury, and spent the debate hunched onto one side, scowling at the live audience while humoring a few questions. Kennedy, on the other hand, stood with impeccable posture.

He smiled when asked questions, and looked directly into the camera while answering them.

As Hurl points out, those watching the debate on television thought that Kennedy won the debate, while those listening on the radio thought that Nixon won. What may have swayed voters in that election were Kennedy’s good looks and charismatic presence. “In many cases, elections are won by winning over people who don’t necessarily have the greatest amount of political consciousness — aren’t paying the most attention to politics — so those are the people that can potentially be swayed by things as irrelevant as how pretty or handsome… the candidate [is],” Hurl explains.

There are some arguments against hiding our politicians from the public eye, though. “You can increase… the rationality of decision-making, but it would be at the cost of radically reducing the scope of participation,” Hurl points out. Theoretically, removing politicians from the public eye would force the electorate to make more policy-based decisions, but less of the electorate would likely be willing to engage in the process. “If you eliminate the spectacle aspect of politics, you’re going to eliminate the scope of participation.”

Yet, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. In a democracy, you can’t be too stupid to vote, but votes from the less politically-engaged often equate to less-informed choices. If the only thing voters knew about Donald Trump were his policies — namely, building walls, killing terrorists’ families, and so on — then perhaps his support, which thrives on massive rallies and active participation in ‘Trump-mania’ would weaken.

Despite all this, Hurl reminds me that regardless of how attractive your local candidate is, most voters have already made their decisions long before campaigning is underway. In the US some people will always vote republican, and some people will always vote democrat.

Between deep-rooted partisanship and votes based on charisma and physical characteristics, I can’t decide which I find scarier.