12.15.06

Canadian bureaucracy

Posted in Canadian life at 6:00 pm by ducky

My experiences with Canadian bureaucracy have been surprisingly pleasant. For example:

  • When I went to apply for my SIN ID (a tax ID number, equivalent to the US Social Security number), it took me twenty minutes from the time I got in the door to the time I walked out.
  • Seven relatives and I were on Pender Island when storms knocked out power and heat at the house we were renting for the weekend. I called BC Ferries to find out if Pender Island’s ferry terminal had a warm place to wait, if the ferries were running, if we could leave early, etc. I immediately got a real human being who happily gave me what information she had and the direct phone number to the Pender terminal, and wished me luck getting home.
  • Jim phoned the BC tax office to ask a question about setting up his consulting business.  He got one level of phonebot menu before being sent to a human. The human picked up in two rings, answered his question, and wished him luck in his venture.

In addition to being very pleasant to deal with, the Canadian bureaucracies seem much more flexible than U.S. ones. It seems that in the U.S., There Are Rules, and the individual agents have no discretion. In Canada, it seems like the agents have much more discretion to be reasonable.

This is probably due in part to a much smaller population, meaning fewer levels of bureaucracy. I suspect that it’s also due to smaller socioeconomic stratification. As Larissa Tieden’s research explains, humans think that low-status people do bad things. This means that if there are fewer low-status people dealing with the bureaucracy, then there will be less suspicion about them trying to “take advantage of the system”.

I’ve often thought about how income discrepancies hurt even the wealthy: they have to worry more about crime, for example. I hadn’t ever thought about how status discrepancies might make bureaucracy more annoying.

(Note that I have the impression that people think that European bureaucracies are worse than U.S. bureaucracies; perhaps this is due to greater emphasis on social class?)

11.22.06

Flashing green lights

Posted in Canadian life at 6:11 pm by ducky

When we came to Vancouver, we were very puzzled by flashing green traffic lights. When we asked Canadians, they said that they were intersections where a pedestrian might push the button to turn the light red. The government-owned Insurance Corporation of British Columbia also describes the flashing green in that way.

This was not a terribly satisfactory answer to us, as most of the streetlights that we’ve seen had a button for pedestrians to cause the traffic light to change (although it sometimes would take a while).

The important thing to know about flashing green traffic lights in British Columbia is that the cross traffic has a stop sign, not a a stop light. This means

  • If you are coming up on a flashing green, a car just might cross or turn in front of you. Do not be alarmed or appalled: as long as it is safe to do so, they are allowed.
  • If you are that cross traffic, you might have to wait a while to cross. I was really surprised that this would work, but it does. Pedestrian traffic in Vancouver correlates very well with auto traffic. If traffic is heavy enough that you can’t find a break to cross, there will be a pedestrian along in a bit to change the light for your cross traffic to red, thus giving you an opportunity to cross. If there are no pedestrians around to run interference for you, then there won’t be much traffic, and you will find a natural break.

One problem with the flashing green traffic lights is that in (at least parts of) Nova Scotia, Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Quebec, there are flashing green lights that mean the same as a green left arrow in most places: “oncoming traffic is stopped”. (There are some reports that this happens even in Vancouver suburbs.) It doesn’t work well when e.g. Ontario drivers come to Vancouver or vice versa!

11.15.06

US/Canada linguistic differences

Posted in Canadian life at 10:00 pm by ducky

While the linguistic differences are subtle between the US and Canada, they do exist.

  • Canadians use a flatter “a” sound than Americans in many words. Many (but not all) Canadians say caat, fahther, paastuh, Maareeoh, draamuh, Jaavuh, Naatsee, and daatuh where Americans usually say caat, fahther, pahstuh, Mahreeoh, drahmuh, Jahvuh, Nahtsee, and daytuh.
  • The “ou” in about, round, house, and about is slightly different from US versions; in the US, it sounds like the “ow” in “how”, but it sounds closer to the “oo” in boot in Canada. (Althrough there is variation across Canada in how close to “oo” the “ow” is.) There is a nice Wikipedia article on the Canadian Rising vowel sounds, and there’s also a page with a bunch of Canadian sound clips on it.
  • Americans and Canadians both distinguish between the noun form of produce (stress on second syllable) and the verb form (stress on first syllable), but Canadians also distinguish between the noun and verb forms of project and process by stressing the first syllable of the noun and the second of the verb.
  • Canadians have rounder “o” sounds in some words. For example, Canadians say toomohrroh, bohrroh, and prohcess where Americans say toomahrroh, bahrroh, and prahcess (for tomorrow, borrow, and process).
  • Canadians say marking and invigilating where Americans say grading and proctoring. While both say first-year, second-year, third-year, and fourth-year, only Americans say freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior.
  • Canadians pronounce the last letter of the alphabet zed while Americans say zee.
  • Canadians will sometimes say, “last day” (for example, to refer to the last time that a class met) where Americans never do. Americans will say “last time” instead.
  • Americans (perhaps because they don’t have premier as elected officials) tend to use the same pronunciation as for the opening night of a movie: preeMEER, while the Canadians call the official the PREEmeer.
  • Canadians say reezohrs where Americans say reesohrs (for resource).
  • Some (not all) Americans think that a toboggan is a knit hat, while Canadians (and some Americans) think that a toboggan is a sled.

Not all Canadians or Americans say things the way I just described, but enough do to make it noticable.

Update: My buddy Vince points out:

  • Canadians use washrooms where Americans use bathrooms. (Usually in Canada, that’s where you take a bath.)
  • Some Americans say ruff instead of roof.
  • Americans sometimes say veehihkuhlwhere Canadians say veeihkuhl.
  • Americans tend to say “uh-huh” where Canadians would say “you’re welcome”. (And Canadians find “uh-huh” a bit rude.)
  • Some Americans say “y’all” for second-person-plural, while no Canadians do.
  • A knit hat is a tuque, pronounced like too with a k at the end.

Addendum: Canadians think that “skating” with no qualifier means “ice skating”.

11.12.06

Status of Women Canada

Posted in Canadian life at 10:12 pm by ducky

My bud Karen Parker is involved with the Status of Women Canada web site, where it says that the current government cut the Status of Women Canada’s budget from CDN$12M to CDN$7M shortly after Stephen Harper (the Prime Minister) came to power.
While I definitely think it’s bad that the budget got cut, part of me is agog that they managed to get CDN$12M in an official government capacity. If there is something similar in the US, I don’t know about it. I think women’s rights are strictly handled by NGOs in the US, such as the National Organization for Women.

11.11.06

Remembrance Day / Veteran's Day

Posted in Canadian life at 10:02 pm by ducky

November 11 is Remembrance Day in Canada and Veterans Day in the US. You would think they would be basically the same thing, but their observance has some significant differences.

Remembrance Day is a pretty big deal in Canada. It honors members of the armed forces who were killed during war — dead people. Remembrance Day is a government holiday, there are services on November 11 that many people go to, there are two minutes of silence at 11:11 (the time the WW1 Armistice was signed), and it is common for people wear poppies on their clothing on the day of (and before, and after). My husband and I have two poppies and wear them.

Veterans Day is not observed to the same degree. It honors war veterans — principally the living, with the dead remembered on Memorial Day. Veterans Day is a government holiday, but lots of businesses and schools stay open.

Perhaps Veterans Day is less of a big deal because veterans are living, breathing human beings with flaws and foibles, whose sacrifices varied wildly. If you happen to be acquainted with a veteran who you don’t like — maybe your uncle-in-law Fred was an incompetent paper-pusher in the Navy for two years during peacetime and who got wickedly drunk last Thanksgiving and groped your sister and then peed in the ficus — then perhaps that might sour you on honoring veterans.

Perhaps you are a liberal, and have a bias that all veterans are knee-jerk conservatives. You might be uneasy honoring those who you think of as your political opponents.

People who died in wars, however, don’t have many flaws and foibles. They don’t vote against you in presidential elections. And it is absolutely clear that they sacrificed everything for their fellow citizens.

Symbology is also important. On Memorial Day in the US, the dominant symbol is the flag, a symbol which for some people symbolizes the dark side of the US. While the US flag represents liberty and freedom to many of her citizens, there are others who see it as a symbol of military aggressiveness and/or reactionary politics.

The poppy — which is worn in Canada, the UK, and Australia on Remembrance Day — is extremely non-aggressive. (Flowers were a symbol of the US anti-Vietnam war movement, even.) The image that it evokes is of not of tanks, planes, and guns, but of graveyards. It is a symbol that is not politically charged; it is as meaningful to anti-war demonstrators as to the most ardent supporters of military action.

Finally, the link to Armistice Day is still very clear in Canadian culture (in part because of the poem In Flanders Field, which was written by a Canadian). Meanwhile, the link to Armistice Day has faded in the US. That link is important, because Armistice Day was when the war ended. It can be seen as a day of honoring peace as much (or perhaps more) than a day honoring war.

The end result is that Remembrance Day is something that is easier for absolutely everybody to support than Veterans Day.

11.08.06

That's just WRONG!

Posted in Canadian life at 9:26 pm by ducky

Somehow I managed to miss it last year…

Canadian Thanksgiving is in mid-October, compared to the late-November of the United States. One could guess that perhaps because Canada is colder, their growing season ends sooner, and so their harvest celebration is earlier. I don’t think that’s it, however, as in November the harvest is well past in most of the US as well.

It turns out that one of the things that the later US Thanksgiving does is keeps Christmas at bay longer. The Toronto Santa Claus Parade will happen on November 19th this year.
In general, I really like Canadian culture, but having Christmas propaganda happen in November? That’s just wrong.

10.16.06

Update on Globe and Mail Green College article

Posted in Canadian life, University life at 9:27 am by ducky

Update: As I mentioned in my response to the Globe and Mail article about Green College, it reported that the Principal, Keith Benson, said that there was lots of drinking and partying. I’ve asked around, and my sources report that there was a problem with one pair of roommates in the spring of 2005 (the semester before I got here), and that some people moved out because of it. It was not a generalized problem.

Meanwhile, the Equity office says that for confidentiality reasons, they can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any complaints.

10.13.06

Green College press coverage

Posted in Canadian life, University life at 7:50 pm by ducky

Today, an article ran in the Globe and Mail about various woes at Green College. Much of it is about a harassment lawsuit that I don’t know anything about, but then part was about the recent contract issues and the tensions between the Principal, Keith Benson, and the residents.

According to the article, Prof. Benson “paints a picture of drinking and partying so wild that it forced two serious scholars to leave the college last year because they couldn’t work.”

My immediate reaction was, “Where were these parties and why wasn’t I invited?!?” 😉

In all seriousness, however, Prof. Benson’s perception of reality is very, very different from mine. I’ll put things that the reporter said he said (which are direct quotes from the article, but frequently paraphrases (not direct quotes) from Prof. Benson) in bold, and my model of the universe in italics.

  • Prof. Benson attributes the conflicts to a few residents” – 59 of the roughly 100 residents attached a statement to their contract stating that the didn’t like it. Out of about 100 residents, about 75 cast ballots to form a Green College Resident Association, 70 voted for, 4 abstained, and 1 voted against. This is more than fits comfortably into my definition of “few”.
  • whom he describes as disrespectful and so abusive to college staff that equity complaints have been made against them.” – That’s the first I’ve heard of complaints from the staff, and I am surprised. In the contract dispute, I thought that the residents behaved with admirable composure given the sudden threat to their housing.
  • [Benson] also describes the residents as very young” – That’s the nicest thing anybody has said to me all day! I’m 43, my husband is 44, and we are not the oldest residents at the college. I haven’t really investigated this year, but last year there were (at least) two people who were in their 50s, us in our early 40s, and then about three people (out of 100) who were in their late thirties. After that, it got harder for me to tell age, but many of the residents are older. I’d guess that the average age is probably around 27, and that doesn’t fit with my mental model of “very young”.
  • Benson “paints a picture of drinking and partying so wild that it forced two serious scholars to leave the college last year because they couldn’t work” – This was the first I’d heard of any issue. I can think of two in-room parties (not counting the time when we had about ten guests sitting in our room drinking approximately one glass of wine with no music and minimal noise) in the two years I’ve been here, and both were on non-school nights. There have been a few Green College parties run by the Social Committee, but the official parties and both in-room parties were on non-school nights.
  • it forced two serious scholars” – implies that not all the scholars are serious. I’ve thought hard about the people I’ve known here, and I can only think of one — a postdoc — who perhaps was not very serious about his scholarship. (He might have been, but his research didn’t come up in conversation much.)
  • ‘They don’t understand academic civility,’ Prof. Benson said, calling their behaviour inappropriate. ‘For example, at a welcoming dinner [for residents and alumni], they did the wave. And an emcee made jokes about [the housing contract] in front of the dean.'”While I can’t swear that the dean also did the wave, she was at one of the tables that did do the wave. All the tables except for Dr. Benson’s did the wave. My table was almost completely alumni, and they expressed disappointment that Prof. Benson’s table did not do the wave. And my mental model of emcees is that they are supposed to make jokes.


Now, I understand that journalists are not able to provide absolutely all context for absolutely all quotes, so perhaps he didn’t really mean what the article indicated. I hope so.

Finally, according to the article, “Ann Rose, acting dean of graduate studies, said she is solving problems as they arise.” I have no disagreement here. I been impressed at how helpful Dean Rose has been.

09.21.06

contract status

Posted in Canadian life, University life at 9:55 am by ducky

I’ve been negligent in telling what ultimately happened with the Green College residence contract conflict.

The University came back with a new contract. There are still some egregious clasuses regulating (perfectly legal) behavior, but during the meeting, the administrators repeated over and over again that they had no intention of enforcing the rules to ridiculous extremes. They said that those clauses were intended for egregious behavior. For example, the prohibition against rules against any noise audible outside the room is not intended to be used to keep me from saying, “Who’s there?”, but to keep people from blaring 200 decibal opera at 3 AM.

I suspect that it is hard to write contracts to clearly prohibit egregious behavior while also allowing reasonable behavior, and they didn’t want to work that hard.

Jim and I had to think really hard about whether we wanted to sign or not. We ultimately did, attaching a statement that said (basically) that we were signing in reliance upon the statements of the administrators that the rules would be enforced reasonably. The fundamental reason we felt okay signing was that people closer to the negotiations than us said that the administration recognized that we were quite capable of causing pain (in the form of bad publicity) for them if they were unreasonable about the contract.

Most of the residents who were holding out also signed. I know of two students and one spouse who could not bring themselves to sign, and will be moving out in a few days. At least 57 residents attached the “in reliance” clause to their contracts. This includes people who did so retroactively — people who were not part of “the holdouts”. I don’t know if their statements will have any legal weight, but it sure was a nice show of support.

One postscript: a professor I spoke to seemed to be under the impression that the police were present at some point. I think he must be a child of the sixties, where police were everywhere and disputes were violent. Or perhaps he was thinking of the APEC97 protests. I was only here for a few days during the contract dispute, but I have not heard *anything* about police. While I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some raised voices in the town hall meeting with the Principal about the contract, but I also have the impression that the negotiations with other university administrators were entirely calm and civil.

08.28.06

UBC Green College eviction notice

Posted in Canadian life, University life at 11:09 pm by ducky

Today I and at least 21 of my fellow residents received eviction notices from our dorm.

“Dorm” isn’t exactly the right word for it, but “residential academic community” is a mouthful. The University of British Columbia’s Green College is supposed to be more than just a place to live, with a strong academic component and strong self-governance. It also has the reputation for having better food: the ten meals per week are provided by the Green College Dining Society, a non-profit owned and run by the residents.

At least, that’s how it is supposed to work. On 28 July, after being repeatedly assured by the Principal that there would be “no substantive changes”, we were all given a new contract and told to sign in two business days. In addition to switching from being month-to-month to term-based, the new contract has a number of onerous terms. Many of them would not be legal if they were in a private landlord’s contract, but UBC has a blanket exemption from the BC Tenancy Act.

The new contract:

  • Has a clause that the administration can change the terms of the contract at will with a week’s notice. (That’s not a contract, that’s an oath of fealty!)
  • Has a long list of prohibited behaviors that are grounds for behavior, which if enforced, would mean that everybody could be evicted. Prohibited behaviors include but are not limited to:
    • Any noise that is audible from outside the room. Walking around, moving chairs, and calling, “Who’s there?” would all thus be grounds for eviction.
    • Having a party on any day at any time except for Friday and Saturday night, or without prior notice to the Resident Advisor. Parties are defined as alcohol, seven or more people, noise. (The contract does not specify if there is an AND or an OR joining those clauses!) This means that if seven people go down to the TV room to watch a hockey game on Sunday afternoon, they cheer their team, and one person has a beer, it is a violation worthy of eviction.
    • Open (which apparently means, as in the US, unsealed) liquor containers in the hallways. Thus to bring a half-empty bottle of wine from one room to another would be an eviction-worthy violation. (I guess they would rather we finish it off.)
  • If evicted, you still have to pay your rent.
  • Says that we have to adhere to documents that do not exist.
  • Has a cancel-with-no-penalty date that is two weeks before we got the contract.
  • Gives the administration the right to enter our rooms with no notice for almost any reason.
  • Gives the administration the right to make us change rooms whenever they feel like it, with minimal notice.
  • Says that if the administration changes the meal plan, then we have to sign up for the new meal plan at whatever cost and whatever level of service they switch to. This gives them a way to dissolve that pesky student-run Green College Dining Society and further erode self-governance.
  • Says that if there is a catastrophe such that our rooms are unlivable, we still have to pay rent and meal plan. (This was also in the previous contract, but with a month-to-month lease, there was a much lower financial risk.)
  • Researchers who lose their eligibility (i.e. turn in their thesis) have only three days to move out, and must pay a penalty of 25% of the semester’s cost for doing so. (This makes short-term stays, e.g. for visiting research scholars, difficult.)
  • Explicitly promises nothing except for a mattress pad and internet access.
  • Drinking games are not permitted. Shared-container alcohol (like a punchbowl) is not permitted at parties.
  • Acting as a host to someone who has been evicted is itself an evictable offense.

In addition, it limits which rooms couples with one partner being a non-student can live in, thus effectively limiting the number of non-student partners. This is an end run around the student-run Membership Committee.

I have the impression that many of these clauses are ones that they have no intention of enforcing. (In fact, the Principal has already issued contracts to two couples with non-student partners who do NOT live in one of the two couples rooms.) This seems strange to me: if you do not plan to enforce the rules, you shouldn’t write them into the contract. Maybe they think that writing the rules into the contract means that they are covered in the case of liability, but I would think that if it is patently obvious that they cannot enforce the rules as written, then I would think that a jury could be persuaded that the rules effectively did not exist.

We have tried reasoning with the acting Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies (who has traditionally overseen Green College), Housing, and Legal. While the Dean seems sympathetic, Housing and Legal are resolute: “The University does not negotiate contracts.” (Um. Didn’t they just negotiate contracts with the Teaching Assistant’s Union?)

I am puzzled by the university’s response — it seems to me like the university is dangerously under-reacting. Apparently, the University is exempt from the BC Tenancy Act because they need to be able to discriminate against non-students, which is prohibited by the Tenancy Act. However, they really seem to be abusing their exemption. It seems to me that this would leave them vulnerable to the assertion that they should not get a blanket exemption, but rather only exemptions from specific, targeted clauses.

Mostly, however, I am sad. Green College seemed like such a bright, shiny place when we applied. From talking to alumni, it sounds like it used to be a really neat institution. But while I am really impressed by my fellow residents, the institution seems to be sliding into greyness.

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