Category Archives: Freelance work

NMC Review: Born Ruffians – ‘Birthmarks’

FTWL: The Dudes, Wolf Parade, Hidden Cameras, Fleet Foxes, Peter, Bjorn and John, Paul Simon

I was on a bus heading to Montreal from Ottawa. My train had been cancelled because of a rogue tree branch and it was nothing but grey skies and a mid-April snow to look at for the next three hours while we trundled down the highway. I was bummed. I slipped on headphones, and pressed play on Born Ruffians‘ Birthmarks while sliding into my seat – ready to fall asleep not looking forward to reaching my destination. Then, this Toronto foursome threw a little love in my direction.

Maximizing catchy, poppy hooks that roll around pleasantly and sunny synths that give off so much mellow, Birthmarks is Born Ruffians third album and this one has had fans on the hook for a good while. In a style that Born Ruffians is making very much their own, this record is all about slinky pop rhythms that encourage lazy, long drives and slow sways. Rife with indecision and forbidden loves, tracks like “Cold Pop” and “6-5000” are reminiscent of school dances – or at the very least, reminiscent of the school dances teenagers lived vicariously through while watching Degrassi Junior High alone on Saturday nights.

Since releasing their first EP on Warp Records in 2005, Born Ruffians have had no shortage of positive expectations. Embraced into the Canadian family of small record labels and just-scraping-by label mates, these four Toronto gents have moved their way into the Canadian indie pop scene with shimmery sounds, muted beats and the backdrop to day dreaming.

Birthmarks recalls a bit of the mid-2000s when new indie pop reigned supreme and each new act challenged what could constitute a catchy hook, or a danceable beat. “Rage Flows” and “With Her Shadow”borrow from influences like Paul Simon and Hidden Cameras. Like all good pop albums,Birthmarks isn’t without darkness and the lyrics of improbable love and sadness mellow on top of the blended instrumentation. It moves slowly and casually from one track to the next, without rush or care. A pretty perfect companion to walking home at 4:00 a.m. in the coolness of early summer mornings, or on a solo drive to somewhere or something promising – sometimes an album doesn’t need to stop you in its tracks to leave a mark on you. Born Ruffians achieve that slow release with Birthmarks. It catches you, and reminds you of gentler times but above all it provides that perfect moment when you can close your eyes and just let life wash over you.

With the album out today on Paper Bag Records, Born Ruffians are hitting the road for their pre-festival album release tour, and while there are no Canadian dates there are plenty of cities close enough to the border to make the drive. Luckily, this Saturday is Record Store Day so if you can wait a few more days you can purchase this new release AND support your local, independent record store. Everyone wins!

(Originally published April 16th, 2013 on the National Music Centre weekly feature, “New Release Tuesday”)

Tagged ,

NMC Review: Apparat Organ Quartet – ‘Pólýfónía’

FTWL: Kraftwerk, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Shout Out Out Out Out

Organ quartets are few and far between in our modern age of synth boards and the many incredible things one can do with a laptop. But since 1999, Iceland-based Apparat Organ Quartet have created incredible, intense and ever shifting musical arrangements by pounding out on an organ. They brings the depth, richness and tonal sincerity that so many gear heads strive to reach in their endless looping and adjusting. The key lies in their not-so-secret weapon: honest to goodness analog keyboards. Drawing comparisons to Kraftwerk and Motörhead, they are once again dropping jaws with the complex arrangements, rich instrumentation and range presented in Pólýfónía. 

Incredibly, every note on Pólýfónía – as in their previous releases – is played by hand, no sequencers or computers. Self-described as “mechanical rock and roll”, Apparat Organ Quartet exclusively uses keyboards from their vast collection of analog musical equipment. While knowing what happens behind the music creates a stronger sense of awe for Pólýfónía, the range they manage to fit into one album is truly amazing.

Glitchy (mechanically so), poppy vocoders, robot like vocals and complex instrumental melodies all lead into a head banging crescendo before fading into a moment of calm only to ramp back up faster and harder than before. It’s a smashed-together electronica dance party with a metal band playing over each track. It sounds like it couldn’t work in theory, but in practice, it is fast and fun. It gives meat to the thin sounds expected out of synths – no looping required.

“Cargo Frakt” employs funky robotic sounding vocals, simple melodies and pounding intervals of intensity – almost preparing the listener for something unexpected. Not only is it incredible to hear this dancy, electronic style being filled out with true organ tones and pounding hard-rock influenced drums, but each track goes to a different place, sometimes more than one. “Songur Geimunglingsins” channels Phillip Glass, Stereolab, David Bowie and Frank Zappa. It isn’t often that those artists all come to mind in a single track. Apparat Organ Quartet is an incredible gem and the creations that have emerged are strangely beautiful and quite certainly hypnotizing.

Apparat Organ Quartet will be bringing all their glory to Canadian Music Festival, playing three different showcases March 20, 22 and 23 in Toronto. Not a show to miss. Even if it is just to witness these artists play their way through a maze of Russian analog synths, semi-working Hammond organs and any number of altered Casios.

NMC Review: Nadja “Dagdrøm”

A perfect winter album, Dagdrøm is dark, ominous and fuzzy. Nadja releases a true to form ambient sludge-rock album as their first full length LP since the 2010  Autopergamene. Aidan Baker  and Leah Buckareff – originally from Toronto and now based in Berlin, combine talents with The Jesus Lizard’s Mac McNeilly. Dagdrøm features McNeilly to his full potential, easing away from the drum machine in favour of his well suited percussion styles.

Not unlike a long, cold walk in the late darkness of a January morning, Dagdrøm pushes the listener into the darkness – encouraging imagined dangers. The beauty of this fuzzy, drone esque sludge-rock album is the technicality and instrumentation, holding the listener spell bound. It moves through each track as if they are movements. The album itself is suspenseful. “One Sense Alone”is heavy, until those last few minutes when it softens and lulls you into a sense of security – the kind of security you imagine you might have after defeating some adrenaline causing spook . Only to know that it won’t be long before another one floats into your radar.

There is a lot of deep dark something-ness to Nadja usually, and the more structured nature of this release only amplifies that. You feel something is coming. It excites you as much as it concerns you. There is a somewhat dangerous feeling to Dagdrøm. Like when it is gets very cold and very dark all too early. The title track is a heavy mix of almost over bearing layers of noise and fuzz. “Space Time and Absence” finishes the album – a warm light after the long walk. Yellow and burning in a space not so distant.

Nadja makes sense for Berlin – or at least for the romanticized visuals of living in punk squats and writing drone-rock. Dagdrøm makes just as much sense for these dark Canadian winters. Where temperatures get equally unbearable and exhilarating. A really interesting album that rockets the listener away from those shiny summer tunes into a darkly beautiful reality.

Order it for yourself here.

NMC Review: Purity Ring “Shrines”

For Those Who Like: Stars, Bjork, Gobble Gobble, Flaming Lips, Lakeside Cottage Country, Braids, Beach House

Shrines, Purity Ring‘s first LP, carves out a strong sound and presence – a genuine summer release. Originally from Edmonton, where Megan James and Corin Roddick first began to play together as two of the four-piece Gobble Gobble, they relocated to Montreal and formed Purity Ring in 2010.  Label mates on 4AD with Blonde Redhead, Atlas Sound and St. Vincent, their release is in good company. Through their recent singles and splits, they have built up a following and this LP doesn’t fall short of expectations.

Shrines is shiny and bright electro pop – though it doesn’t fall entirely within that. With catchy synth hooks, hip-hop inspired beats and smooth breathy vocals, Shrines comes close to being just another catchy favourite, but there is something unique about James’ voice over slick arrangements where Roddick plays with everything he can. From the mellow and shimmery “Crawlersout”, to the darkly poppy “Obedear”, and the synth and auto-tune heavy “Amenamy”, the balance is maintained clear through the album. There are plenty of summer memories to create alongside this album and it fits handily in any number of backyard bonfires or warm nights.

Its fuzzy, somewhat smoggy sounds rings of the wave of garage rock coming out of small record labels now, especially those crafted throughout the Canadian landscape. Still, Shrines distinguishes Purity Ring into a new class, something a little different. Purity Ring could just as easily channeled lighter shimmery electro-pop but there is something darker. You can hear the heavier sounds from Gobble Gobble coming through, though if anything it gives it a stronger edge. Changing it from usual to something unexpected.

There is something though that detracts from this album. It is short and sweet, but it is clear that Purity Ring works best in small batches: stellar 7” and 7” splits.  Fat Possum’s 7” split with Braids was a natural fit, for example. However, those sweet summertime moments eventually blend together and Shrines will likely not be immune from that. A solid album, hopefully one that shows even more potential growth for the next release from Purity Ring.

(Originally published on the National Music Centre weekly feature, “New Release Tuesday”)

New immigrants face new barriers

Federal budget cuts impact services for new immigrants at Citizenship and Immigration offices

As of June 1 the federal government closed 19 Citizenship and Immigration Canada offices. The closures came with the government-wide budget cuts, with CIC ministry expected to reduce it’s budget by $179 million over three years. These closures, as well as a move toward electronic initial contact points with CIC, are meant to decrease the number of personnel and create a paperless system. It’s part of a modernization agenda according to the CIC, but it’s a process that will remove the first points of one-on-one contact for new immigrants.

“A visa wizard, how-to video tutorials, FAQs, and proactive messaging are making it more simple for applicants to get the help they need either online or through the call centre,” says CIC spokesperson Mylene Estrada del Rosario of the website. “CIC regularly consults in person and on-line with stakeholders, partners and all Canadians on its policies, programs and services.”

But these new points of contact present new barriers. They are currently offered exclusively in English and French, and reliance on telephone or web contact points can create a technological barrier. In Alberta, Lethbridge has the highest number of Bhutanese refugees in Canada: over one tenth of those who have settled in Canada. This exemplifies why new reliance on technology can create barriers outside of language skills. “These are people who have been living in Nepal for over 20 years. Some will have had a radio, some will have had a computer. Others will not,” explains Sarah Amies, the Program Director of Lethbridge Family Services Immigrant Services. Even with organizations that provide computer and Internet service it will fall to staff at settlement service agencies to work with individuals to overcome language and technology barriers.

The concerns raised by non-profit organizations for settlement in Alberta go beyond the new technologies expected to replace current CIC services. Agencies in Lethbridge, Calgary and Edmonton consider the impact on their own organizations and what it means for newcomers to Canada. Edmonton’s Immigrant Services Association executive director Christina Nasliywa identifies this as a major cause of concern for her: “It is going to cause delays and frustrations, and it going to cause hardships on both sides, both the CIC offices and settlement agencies, as well as the new immigrants flocking to Alberta’s small cities.”

Southern Alberta has seen a substantive rise of settling by immigrants and refugees new to Canada. In 2007 Brooks had 92 new permanent and temporary residents move there, while Lethbridge welcomed 279 new residents. But in 2011 Brooks and Lethbridge settled 537 and 509 respectively. No other urban centre in Alberta saw such an increase.

Rosario reiterated the ongoing support for settlement services in Alberta’s urban centres. “CIC funds Local Immigration Partnerships in nine communities in Alberta. One of the roles of these LIPs is to identify newcomer needs and devise strategies to address them,” says Rosario. “In addition, service providers in communities are in touch with the evolving needs of newcomers.”

Settlement services in urban centres throughout Canada are also funded provincially, to provide an additional two years of support after the initial year the federal government funds. Support includes help with English language classes and financial support similar to what is currently offered by the province, these supports are only available for a year.

Through federal support, refugees are provided with the means to get from their country of asylum to Canada. However, that flight or transportation cost is invoiced to that individual or family. The bill is capped at $10 000 and the interest is stayed for the year. After a year it is assumed they will be able to find sufficient employment. If refugees need further support after the first year in Canada they may apply for provincial support.

Although CIC has increased allocations to settlement services to $75 million in 2012–2013—a $10.9 million increase from 2011–2012—agencies in Alberta do not currently have any indication if their federal funding will increase, despite increased demand on services and new pressures such as communicating with an office much further away.

“Most of the direct client service that was provided with CIC will no longer be provided by them,” notes Amies. “We will pick up the slack where the direct client services are concerned.”

Amies understands the position of the government. “I appreciate that the government is in financial difficulty and I appreciate that the status quo situation is important with planning and strategy,” Amies says before adding, “what the funders have to appreciate is that inflation continues to rise. As well, in our current environment not-for-profit services are devalued.”

Originally published in VUE Weekly, issue #873.

The Sounds of Unification

Sled Island has developed into a full fledged cultural hot spot, drawing people from the farthest reaches of Alberta, across Canada and around the world. Acts such as Calgary/Toronto’s Feist and Japan’s the Boredoms on the same bill as Lethbridge’s Fist City, Vancouver’s Korean Gut and Edmonton’s Travis Bretzer shows the diversity of the program. This year, Sled Island is also featuring a full film lineup in the week leading up to the music festival and several visual art exhibitions that will run for the entirety of the festival.

Drew Marshall, the Marketing and Communications Director of the Sled Island administration, is also rather excited about the “green island” initiative that will see multiple bike racks placed at venue sites and a bike rental program.

Marshall initially become involved in 2007, Sled Island’s inaugural year. “Part of the reason I was attracted to it, it definitely was something that didn’t exist prior to Sled Island, ” he recalls. “There has always been a lot of great music out of Calgary and Alberta and overall in the region, but there wasn’t any big event that was bringing that whole community together.”

While Sled Island was initially the brain child of Zak Pashak who was inspired by the Pop Montreal festival and is still involved as the Creative Director; the festival now is organized with the help of over 400 volunteers and, in Marshall’s experience, “has always been a real collaborative effort to make this whole thing happen.”

“There is a community that exists in Calgary and surrounding the festival,” he explains. “It might be something where not everyone is connected, or not always represented. During Sled Island you have this flourish of activity with all these great bands, performing at all these venues—small, intimate unconventional venues, large outdoor ones—and it really becomes obvious that there is this incredibly vibrant music scene going on in Calgary, in Canada, in North America.”

In Marshall’s view, Sled Island changed things. “For the first time there were these big international acts that for the most part would never come to Calgary,” he says. “The first year we had the Boredoms from Japan play, and it was one of the most mind blowing shows for anyone that was in attendance. We had Cat Power in the first show she had played at in a church in Calgary—that was just a beautiful show. Sled Island represented all these things coming together.”

For people like Paul Lawton, a central member of the Lethbridge garage-rock scene and co-owner and founder of Mammoth Cave Records, Sled Island offers something different than SXSW or NXNE, which are “very industry centred.” Lawton believes Sled Island has created a new kind of multi-venue festival, that is very artist focused. The industry presence has been very small for the most part. It has engendered a very DIY spirit and community.”

For Lawton, Sled Island not only provides the opportunity to expose hundreds of people to the bands hosted on Mammoth Cave, the label he co-owns, but, as with many regional musicians, the impact of getting to meet promoters and booking agents and to play a showcase every night—especially being from a smaller city in Alberta—is worth a great deal.

“There was a long time where it was hard for Alberta bands to book outside of Alberta,” he explains. “It took a lot of time and work to get people from the bigger centres to care about music happening in other parts of the country. Sled Island I think is the key player in that.”

Aaron Levin, founder of Weird/Wyrd Canada and a former music director for Edmonton’s campus-community radio station CJSR, believes Sled Island’s success has everything to do with the way the festival was initially set up.

“Sled Island is a very interesting case of a festival with a very large mandate and goal,” says Levin. “It has both embraced the fringe DIY while managing to attract a huge massive audience. This is what separates from some of the festivals, say, I do, and some of the festivals where this doesn’t happen—like the Edmonton Folk Festival, for example.”

For Levin, what is truly special about Sled Island is how it embraced the DIY culture of the local music scenes in Alberta right away. “SXSW (a festival Sled Island is oft compared to), for example, has definitely embraced that, but they didn’t start embracing that. When all the showcases started there was actually a negative reaction from the leadership of SXSW. Being bold, and embracing the indie local music scene was very important for their success.”

Levin, like Lawton, recognizes the avenues Sled Island has created to connect bands to promoters to booking agents to bands. “The opportunity for having a large part of the west coast music community under one roof and talking to each other is something that doesn’t happen,” Levin points out. “Sled Island has really provided for that by embracing all this fringe DIY music.”

Levin’s own music site, Weird Canada—named by CBC Radio 3 as the “Best Indie Music Website in Canada” and his travelling Wyrd festival benefited from Sled Island simply because “they were so open armed when it came to working together. (They were) incredibly encouraging for any sort of creative idea I had. That helped Weird Canada get a larger voice out of the city I was working in.”

Lawton and Levin, as festival attendees and programmers, clearly see Sled Island’s biggest strength in its commitment to the local and regional acts. One thing they do very right in Lawton’s eyes is that “every year after they do Sled Island, they send out a questionnaire to all the bands and it is very clear they have listened to the local and regional musicians who have given input. Every year gets a little better.”

For Marshall, that community building is what Sled Island is all about: “Bring together all these people for these four days and really create all this momentum and placing spotlights on the incredible music community that exists here. Really, in Calgary and Edmonton we are removed from so many parts of the world or even North America that sometimes we are off the radar when it comes to live music and touring bands and that kind of thing.

“The resource of talent in Alberta is so vast and there is so much potential that Sled Island is essentially a small group of people that work in this office doing our best to connect these communities that already exist.”

Originally published in VUE Weekly, June 14th 2012, issue #869.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Taxation without representation

We are in a time when high levels of apathy are increasingly apparent in traditional forms of student involvement. Many post-secondary institutions are seeing a decline in students willing and wanting to run for elected positions through their student associations. Voter turnouts in these elections are stagnating as low as 15 percent for some institutions and rarely peak above 30 percent.

Despite this disengagement from student politics, students are showing their concern over fee increases using methods outside of traditional institutions. A cold February day in 2009 saw over 500 students from three of Alberta’s universities march to the Legislature to loudly voice their displeasure about proposed mandatory non-instructional fees. This level of engagement and issue-based passion is what the members of the Council of Alberta University Students are hoping to capitalize on.

Alberta’s student associations have a strong history of going to their constituents to decide on appropriate fees. In the last 10 years U of A students have voted in 11 fee-related referendums, U of C students in 19 and U of L students in six. Those referendums have varied from decreasing SU fees to approving yearly fees for new buildings, athletics, Students’ Union operations, or independent medias such as campus-community radio and newspapers.
“Putting fees to referendum has been what the UCSU has done since we were created, it is the only way we increase  or take away fees. That is the practice that we use and that is reasonable for out institutions to use,” says Hardave Birk, current Chair of CAUS and the Vice-President Academic for the U of C SU.

The mandatory non-instructional fee put in place by the U of A and U of C administration last year increased the financial barrier students carry significantly. It was an issue that translated to the Students’ Union elections at U of C, as well as many other PSE institutions. Birk comments, “it definitely affects access. At the U of C we had a $450 fee put on us, at the U of A there was a $250 fee put in place. At the U of C that is almost like paying for an entire extra course to go to school. Furthermore, what services are being provided under that fee? They are services already being provided and the students do not have the option to say: ‘we don’t want those services provided for us.'”

Instructed last summer by the Minister of Advanced Education and Technology—then Doug Horner, who has recently stepped down to pursue PC party leadership—the three Alberta-based student organizations developed a plan to regulate mandatory fees in such a way that it would have to be presented to a student association before the institution could impose it upon the student body. This would then allow the SA to put the fee to a student-wide referendum.

While the U of A administration—as well as other PSE institutions in Alberta—has a consultation process in place to develop fees with student input, the disregard of student needs and wants in 2009 showed that process to be faulty.

Why the referendum? This process hardly guarantees a stoppage to increasing fees. In the last 10 years, students at U of A have voted in favour of fee increases eight times out of 10 referendums, including an SU operated Health and Dental plan that increased their fees by $192/yearly.
U of C, and U of L are no different. Both schools have seen the majority of fee increase pass through referenda. Birk believes even though they pass, the referena provide an opportunity for dialogue, “it is also about the institutions being able to rationalize to students, to explain to students why those fees are necessary.”

Keith McLaughlin, the vice-chair of CAUS and Vice President Academic of the ULSU agrees. “Referendums are the best way to gauge students support for a proposal. It is a way to force the institutions to rationalize their funding and fee increase proposals. If they want to increase a fee above the rate of CPI, they have to demonstrate to students why that fee is needed and where that money is going too. We [the ULSU] whole-heartedly believe that if you craft a well reasoned, rational argument to students about why their fees should be increased, if it is a strong argument they will agree with you.”

The agreement put forward by three organizations did stipulate that the fee increase would go through student council first then to a referendum if the council voted it down.
McLaughlin believes he could see the U of L SU support a non-instructional fee if the rational was sound: “We care about quality of education here as well. As long as it has a tangible benefit for students, and it is not an astronomical fee hike that is going to really challenge low-income students, then I could see the SU certainly supporting a fee hike of that nature.”

Realistically though, if any institution put forward a fee of the likes in 2009 Birk says unequivocally, “it would have gone to referendum. Our student council would have not passed the fee that was put forward last year … the university didn’t consult with the students, or explain the reasoning.”
It doesn’t seem the institutions agree with the three student advocacy organizations. No administration seems open to the referendum clause as of right now, despite their successful use of it in the past. Students will continue to press on though, says Birk.

“We are looking for the government to take leadership on this for sure, and we will continue to push that message forward. I think there are still a lot of opportunities to move forward on this issue.”

As published in VUE Weekly’s 2011 Education special, issue 802.

Balancing act

{image_caption}» Students and administrators open new daycare site in Lethbridge

For some, post-secondary education is solely a place of learning, where classes take place—a means to an end. For others it is a flexible, multi-faceted space, filling the needs of a homebase, a workplace or a social setting. In an ideal world, a post-secondary learning environment would bring together the best of all worlds and on-campus childcare is one step toward achieving this aim. Childcare is not a required feature in workplaces, but it adds to the appeal of an organization. Recently the debate over the provision of childcare at post-secondary institutions has sparked a dicussion of an institution’s image, a faculty member’s choice of institution and a parent’s ability to not have to choose between higher education and being a formative person in their child’s life.

Shannon Digweed was a single mother throughout her undergraduate career at the University of Alberta. “We started in a daycare off campus—that was harder. It was all about timing really. Sometimes you had to leave early, and because the day care was open at eight, you couldn’t enroll in earlier classes.” In her second year, she discovered the on-campus daycare located in the HUB building. This opportunity changed her undergraduate experience.

“It was great, I’d take her in the morning, and you could always take them in quite early so you never were late for your 8 am lab or class, and they were open fairly late. It gave you the opportunity, so when you’re studying you could go in at lunch and visit with them, or during breaks in your class schedule during that day.”

There are currently five childcare centres on the University of Alberta campus, and each caters to a different demographic. They range in price depending on age and need, averaging around $1000 monthly. These centres are not university operated, but are “University affiliated daycare programs.” Their collective mission is to be “family oriented child care centres which develop trust and respond to the needs of the child as well as the family.”

Currently, each U of A daycare has a minimum one to two year wait list, and to be put on the wait list there is a mandatory deposit, ranging from $50 to $500. The long wait times haven’t changed from when Digweed moved to attend the U of C in Calgary. “There is so much demand for it. I was on the waitlist for my entire Master’s degree. So many people wanted to take advantage of it, there was never any room.”

Digweed does recognize that there have been and continue to be daycares and dayhomes located off campus, and like many students, staff and faculty, her children were enrolled in those off-campus places but, “Good daycares and dayhomes are limited in numbers. I think that people seem to perceive that there are a lot of opportunities for daycare but I don’t think it’s as easy as most people think. Even when Kennedy was young, and I was looking for a daycare it was not easy. You had to go in there and spend time in each place you go to. Looking, and making sure they’re accredited, how many staff per child, what is their history, and a lot of them are always at capacity.”

Outside of the U of A, most every major PSE institution has a daycare centre on-campus. Besides being an asset in attracting high-quality instructors and researchers, it also improves the image of an institution. In a place where space is valuable in every way it can be, an institution choosing to invest capital in childcare speaks to a higher value, and ideal of a community, not just a campus.
The conversation about daycare continues for student governments at each PSE institution in Alberta. Duncan Wojtaszek, Executive Director of the Council of Alberta University Students, is involved with the struggle “to have access to it and [have] it be a vital part of the campus community, not just for some members of the campus.” From Wojtaszek’s perspective, it is not that the university doesn’t care about opening space for students, it is that they recognize that the daycare is a vital public service to recruit new faculty. This is universal to campuses across the country.

Melanee Thomas, a burgeoning Canadian academic, understands the impact childcare centres have on campus environments. “University campuses are designed to be community outreach centres in a lot of ways, and there is more than one way to learn. It was extremely positive, and something that I would look for in any campus I would consider taking a tenure track position in.”

Digweed now teaches at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, and despite her new position in the post-secondary strata, she is well aware of the MacEwan on-campus day care. Run by the Early Learning and Child Care program at MacEwan, it provides a win-win for the university. ELCC students get hands-on experience while faculty and staff take advantage of on-campus childcare. Although it is no longer an issue for Shannon, she does understand the impact it would have on faculty members. “A lot of people in our department have young children,” and because the institution has shown that day care is a priority, “it makes it look like they care,” says Digweed. Simply put, childcare centres reflect the environment an institution fosters, good or bad.

The number one issue brought up time and time again is that daycares do not make any money. In an economy driven by market principles of profit, it is less than popular to start a venture where there is no guarantee of capital gain. The U of A on-campus daycares charge an average of $900 monthly for a child between 19 months and five years. The Government of Alberta offers a maximum subsidy of $546 per month per child for the same age range. This leaves the parent to pay just under $400 on average monthly for childcare. That is some students’ monthly rent in shared accommodation. While on-campus childcare opens doors for many students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to successfully complete post-secondary learning, without the subsidy offered by the provincial government, daycare cost would present a large, and for many insurmountable barrier to attaining a post-secondary education. The subsidy is critical to being able to afford childcare for many, students and non-students alike. From Digweed’s perspective, “It makes the difference between being able to have your kids in a good daycare versus having a place where you don’t really know what is going on looking after them.”

Today, public institutions, like MacEwan, are coming up with creative solutions. While students take advantage of hands on training, the institution benefits from having a high quality childcare program to offer new faculty and staff, and the children enrolled are reaping the rewards of progress in early childhood education practices.

The University of Lethbridge, and Mount Royal University have opened up daycare centres on-campus. For the U of L, this was the result of a long battle. Many years were spent by a loose organization of students, graduate students and professors who came together to tell the university very clearly how important this prioritization of space is. It signified a new attitude by administration, recognizing the important role an on-campus daycare plays in its community. At the end of the day, for any institution it will be a matter of need demonstrated and the desire to foster a true campus community.

Wojtaszek’s experience with post-secondary education means that he understands the conversations that occur when finances are tough; he notes that “there is always a temptation to look at other ways to outsource daycare, to take it out of the campus community and to privatize it.” But Wojtaszek believes that, “the campus daycare can be an important part of the campus community to emphasize to both students and staff that the campus is their home, the campus is their primary community. Not just where they learn, not just where they work, but also a place where they live and where their family is welcome.”

As published in Vue Weekly issue 749.

Homeless but not faceless

As the snow falls and picturesque visions of street lights and frosty air fill the weeks before Christmas, the chilling nights also signify the beginning of a hard season for those living on the streets. Though our province has been moderately sheltered against the financial storm, those who have borne the brunt are unlikely to weather the coming winter without assistance that can often be difficult to obtain without proper identification.

Our society maintains a view that property ties are a necessity for citizenship. In order to vote, you need an ID and a proof of residence. In order to get a bank account, to deposit employment insurance, income support, or a pay cheque you need an ID and a proof of residence. To do almost anything, you essentially need to not be homeless.

But recent changes by the Government of Alberta are an attempt to make it easier for homeless people in Alberta to attain ID.

The changes allow for shelters to be listed as proof of residency, but also put the onus on the agency to prove their client is who they say they are. Jonathan Denis, minister of housing and urban affairs, the ministry working with Service Alberta to implement the new regulations, is overwhelmingly positive about the new process. Speaking to Vue Weekly, he commented that the government has “established relationships with shelters and agencies,” and this process is designed to make getting an ID “more streamlined with a quicker turn around.”

The new regulations break down the barriers into two separate categories. The first is the issue of residency. To obtain an ID one needs to prove they live in Alberta. That barrier is addressed by allowing shelters to list their address as proof of residency. The second one—proof that you are who you say you are—isn’t quite as easily dealt with.

The process certified agencies must go through to verify identification is resource intensive. Shelters throughout Alberta rely primarily on volunteers. They usually employ few people to keep overheads low, ensuring as much money as possible goes to maintaining the centres. Unfortunately the Alberta government’s identity certification process mandates that it “must ensure all certifiers are current employees of the Agency,” thus limiting the number of people who can provide this service.

To obtain ID for a client, an employee must work with the individual to obtain primary documents, secondary documents and fact check through “alternate channels.” Further they must also be present with the client when at the registry to get the ID.

In addition, those who live on the street are facing challenges like addiction issues, mental illness, lack of health resources, physical illness and, above all, a significant lack of trust in the establishment. This process is asking someone who has been on the receiving end of institutional discrimination to hold on six to eight weeks while their birth certificate and health care card are processed.

Currently, shelters and resource centres are doing much with little as it is. And since implementing “A Plan for Alberta: Ending Homelessness in 10 Years,” shelters have noticed a significant increase in demand for basic resources access. Louise Gallagher, the Calgary Drop-In Centre’s public relations and volunteer coordinator, comments, “For our councilors, for assistance with applications for social services, for clothing, for food hampers, for furniture, for apartments, for things like that we are definitely seeing an increase in people.”

A spokesperson for the Boyle Street Community Services says, “I can’t speak for other agencies, but I know we’re going to make the time. We are going to incorporate this service; we already do reviews with those who stay with us once a week. Typically, last night we had 540 stay with us.”
This is an immensely positive outlook, as in Edmonton alone there are nearly 2000 people considered homeless, and it is impossible to guess how many of those do not have any form of identification whatsoever.

Until this is implemented, it is hard to say how effectively existing barriers will be removed. Denis acknowledges that the new ID is just “another piece of a puzzle.” And the barriers in the new process go beyond the time constraints of agencies; they are also present in the evidence needed for a homeless individual to prove themselves.

There are eight “scenarios” the government lays out that ask for a combination of identity proving documents. Four of these scenarios ask for either a passport or an Indian Status Card, both federally tendered, secure proofs of identification that are legal for employment and banking purposes. Five of the scenarios require a physical proof of recorded financial transaction: bank account information, income tax receipt, pay stubs or a credit card. Also listed as legitimate forms of identification: utility bills, property taxes, insurance documents and landed immigrant documents.

Gallagher commented that, “Maybe the objective of the singular ID is that it is a common card that is used everywhere.”

This spurs another concern for Gallagher: “The concern whenever we introduce stuff like this [is] that then it becomes mandatory that you have this before you can get any services. It could become that you can’t go to a shelter if you don’t have a card.”

So while Denis is working with the Government of Alberta and the ministry to ensure that a homeless individual is “treated the same as everyone else,” agencies in Calgary and Edmonton are sleeping hundreds in emergency shelters, rooms that are essentially large concrete gymnasiums, and resource workers see the physical effects of living on the streets directly and people like Gallagher are working with them directly. As she says, “One of the things that happens here is that people come to our door, and we don’t ask for ID. We don’t verify that their name is John Smith … because that’s not the relevant part for us.”

Published in VUE weekly, issue #790.

What’s in a name?

Mount Royal University, and Grant MacEwan University – a year later.

A rose, is a rose, is a rose, is a rose.

– Gertrude Stein

September 3rd is the first year anniversary of Mount Royal University. For many, it is the celebration of a coming of age for both Mount Royal University and Grant MacEwan University – which was named shortly after Mount Royal.

For many involved in Alberta’s post-secondary environment, it makes the changes that had been occurring over the last five years very visible, and very permanent.

Rob Jones, president of the MRU Student Association, believes that the name change signified, “that what was happening here at Mount Royal was being recognized by the external community. People taking notice of what was going on here on campus.”

MacEwan’s student community echoes those sentiments. With just over half of MacEwan’s student population currently enrolled in degree programs for the 2010-2011 academic year, the addition of “university” didn’t change the outcome of their education, but did validate the academic efforts of their chosen institution.

The reality is, over the past decade the Alberta PSE system saw an increased number of transfer students between collage and university degree programs, an increased demand for transfer programs, and for post diploma degree programs. Explains Carol Nueman, the Executive Director of ASEC, an organization counting MacEwan, and MRU among their large membership that, “there has been a name change, of Grant MacEwan University and MRU, but it is the tip of the iceberg as far as the much, much larger change that has occurred in Alberta.”

The past year has only served to prove the validity of the government’s assertions prior to and following the announcement: that the change in name did not a mean a change in any other way. These two new universities are still funded in the same way, and continue to implement programming as per their six-sector mandate: a focus on learning delivery and not research.

What did change, according to both Rob Jones, and the MacEwan Student Association Vice-President Academic, John-Paul Hermano, is the community of these two schools.

Hermano sees the positive impact the name change has had on community spirit at MacEwan through his work as a student representative. “We’re finding out with the SA that we’re able to engage students more. Its become even more prevalent that students are getting more involved in their school,” he commented to Vue.

Hermano has seen the institution grow since the name change came about, with students more optimistic about their opportunities at MacEwen. Hermano says that the university has seen an increase in the number of students choosing to stay, rather than transfer out. The university is also seeing alumni return to obtain full degrees in their field of study.

Jones relayed that MRU is experiencing a similar sense of optimism among their students.

The change of name should to be more than just a brand re-visioning, or a rubber stamp over an existing logo. For the students of Mount Royal and MacEwan, the sense of community that has grown as a result, is proof of the positive effects.

Will this be enough though, as both institutions are looking to grow in their capabilities and as students are looking for a full university experience, complete with research opportunities.

Hermano told Vue that MacEwan students are already looking for more undergraduate research opportunities. “MacEwan has over 40 students engaging in research, and I know that the institution itself is looking for ways to go about increasing that,” he commented.

As only a year has passed, the true effect of these changes won’t be seen until students who entered into degree programs at the two institutions graduate with those degrees. It is then that the university name will have something to prove.

Originally published in Vue Weekly’s Education 2010 special section – August 2010

%d bloggers like this: