Two years ago, writer Simon Oxenham at Big Think broke the story of Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan dubbed the “Robin Hood of Science”. Elbakyan started SciHub, which bypasses journal paywalls to provide illegal free access to anyone who wants them, in 2011. Elsevier, one of the biggest names in academic publishing in the world, has testified that SciHub was harvesting articles at the rate of thousands per day–Elbakyan stated that it was more like hundreds of thousands per day, delivered to more than 19 million users. Oxenham wrote that, with a database of over 48 million articles in 2017, “Sci-Hub represents the sum of countless different universities’ institutional access — literally a world of knowledge.”

Many see Elbakyan as a crusader against an industry that has been unfair since large corporations took over academic publishing. Academic authors are not paid for their contributions, yet Elsevier has an annual income of over $1 billion US dollars; most academics have no choice but to publish in journals owned and operated by these international corporations as they are required to do so to obtain tenure. As Oxenham pointed out in a follow-up piece, virtually every step of the academic publishing process is carried out by volunteers, including editing, reviewing, and production. Journal paywalls make it impossible for people working as social workers, nurses, chemists, or planners to access the latest developments in their field–as they are no longer students or researchers at a university that pays hefty journal subscription fees. Many journals have introduced Open Access options in the past two decades, and about 70% of them do not charge authors publication fees to guarantee that readers can access their articles for free. The rest compound the problem by charging authors hundreds or thousands of dollars per article to be published.

Originally created for a very practical reason–universities in Kazakhstan couldn’t afford journals’ high subscription rates, which is no surprise since even Harvard and Cornell have been unable to keep up–SciHub was built upon the practice of sharing final or pre-publication versions of the articles with fellow researchers. Elbakyan was forced to find pirated articles this way as a student, being unable to afford to pay for every single article she needed to read. Having left Kazakhstan to work in computer security in Moscow for a year, she went to the University of Freiburg in Germany in 2010 to work on a brain-computer interface project. Returning to Kazakhstan and frustrated with the #icanhazPDF approach researchers had to use to find papers through Twitter, she used her coding and hacking skills to create SciHub, which automated the process and made it much more efficient. The process couldn’t be easier to use–just find the article you want to access and then add SciHub’s complete URL. Elbakyan operates the website from Russia using varying domain names and IP addresses.

As Oxenham pointed out, Elbakyan seems to have picked up the baton from Aaron Swartz, the genius inventor of RSS, Creative Commons and co-founder of Reddit. Swartz met a tragic end through suicide after he downloaded the entire contents of the JSTOR database and was beset upon with 13 wire-fraud felony charges. Though Swartz and Elbakyan never met or were aware of each others’ work, they seemed to share some common goals.

In 2015 Elsevier brought a case against SciHub. After Elbakyan’s story was published on Big Think in February 2016 and several other media outlets jumped onboard, Google blocked SciHub’s access to Google Scholar. John Bohannon at Science called SciHub “an awe-inspiring act of altruism or a massive criminal enterprise, depending on whom you ask.” In a default judgement on June 21, 2017, a New York district court awarded Elsevier $15 million for copyright infringement by SciHub and the Library of Genesis (LibGen) project, where Elbakyan was posting content harvested by SciHub. But Elbakyan lives outside the court’s jurisdiction and does not have any US assets, so she can’t be forced to pay even if she could.

Where does that leave our female Robin Hood? Nature named Elbakyan, who calls her mission “scientific communism”, one of the top ten people who matter in science in 2016. As Ian Graber-Stiehl wrote on The Verge a few months ago, the publicity from the case only made SciHub more popular. It is now the biggest Open Access academic resource in the world, with over 64 million articles. Didem Kaya Bayram and Furkan Akyurek at TRT World called SciHub “a game changer for the industry”, arguing that even if it collapses, it shows that the current model of academic publishing is broken and publishers need to change their business model to stay relevant. This victory, shadowed by Swartz’s and her own legal problems, is offset by Elbakyan’s need to stay in hiding–she now studies the history of science at an undisclosed location, and will probably never be able to visit the US. Her role in ushering in a new academic publishing era is firmly established.


For those who missed the event, you can read my summary here and watch the video on social justice issues here.

On March 22, the federal budget was announced, including $2.2 billion over the next 11 years to cities for transit projects, part of $11.9 million that would be allocated to infrastructure. The Liberal government commited to 50% of the funding for municipal projects. This week, municipalities across the country announced how they would use the much-needed funding for public transit infrastructure.

In British Columbia, the federal announcement was matched by the Province’s commitment to contribute another $2.2 billion, allowing regional authority TransLink to move ahead with Phase 2 of a ten-year plan in Vancouver. Projects will include the Broadway subway, which TransLink has wanted to build for over 20 years, Surrey light rail transit, replacement of the Pattullo Bridge, expanding bus and HandyDART services, more railcars and upgrades to the roads, cycling and walking networks.

The big news in Hamilton and Niagara Falls was that they will get all-day GO Transit service, with a contribution of $1.7 billion. Both municipalities also received funding for their bus services. Niagara Falls Transit will use their $3.4 million in federal funding (which will be matched by the city) to develop a real-time “next bus” app, buy new buses, update a transit hub, update its fleet management software, buy and install new fare boxes and allow online booking and management for its specialized curb-to-curb transit system. Hamilton will use its $32 million in federal funding for 13 projects including a bus storage and maintenance facility, new buses, rehabilitation of transit shelters and bus stops, automatic passenger counters, transit priority measures, and improvements at the Mountain Transit Centre.

In Guelph, $9.6 million federal funding will allow the municipality to buy new buses, replace fare boxes, upgrade bus stops, and upgrade the traffic control system. London’s proposed bus rapid transit system will get a boost, in addition to the transformation of Dundas Street in the core into a pedestrian-first “flex street”, replacement of all of London Transit’s bus shelters, and construction of protected bicycle lanes downtown.

Winnipeg announced 33 projects that will be jointly funded by the three levels of government including replacement buses, new bus shelters and handi-vans. The federal government’s 50% of the projects amounts to about $3.1 million, while the province will pay $1.5 million and municipalities will cover about $2 million.

Of the total $11.9 billion allocated for infrastructure, the federal budget sets out $2.2 billion for water and waste management in First Nations communities, $2 billion for the Clean Water and Wastewater fund, $1.5 billion for affordable housing, and $1.2 billion in social infrastructure for First Nations, Inuit, and northern communities. All this spending will come at a cost: the federal budget will not be balanced during the fourth year of the Liberal mandate as promised.

Many cities offer free or discounted transit passes for the low-income population, which can include seniors and students. Vancouver’s TransLink offers seniors lower-priced travel in the evenings and on weekends. The very successful U-Pass (universal pass) program for university students: thirty Canadian universities offer students subsidized passes through partnerships with local transit providers. The University of Washington adopted the U-Pass in 1991, and currently offers students unlimited transit for just $84 per quarter (just $28 per month). Such programs show recognition that moving around the city is a right, not a privilege–and one that is often denied to those most in need of reliable transportation to access education or work opportunities.

Halifax Transit piloted a program in 2016 to offer discounted transit passes to 500 low-income riders. For half the price of a regular pass ($39/month), people who need the service the most were able to access it. Halifax Regional Municipality’s standing transportation committee agreed in late January to make the service permanent, and now the program needs the approval of the regional council. It is estimated that the program will cost the HRM about $160,000 per year. The program will provide discounted passes to 1,000 riders this year, targeting HRM residents with a gross household income of $33,000. The number of passes provided could increase in the future.

This is a far cry from TTC’s proposed Fair Pass program, which will cost $4.6 million in its first year and require a subsidy from the City. In December 2016, the TTC obtained Council approval to offer discounted Metro Passes to low-income residents; the program is expected to offer discounted fares to Toronto residents making up to 15% more than the low-income measure, beginning in 2018. Although the program will cost the TTC a lot in lost revenue, the report to council outlined that the cost of a Metropass had risen 30% since 2009, while minimum wage has only increased by 20%. Reports of residents walking miles so that they could make doctor’s appointments, job interviews, or pick up children from school are commonplace in Toronto, as the cost of tickets and passes has outstripped wages. Calgary, Waterloo, and Burlington are among other Canadian cities to offer discounted passes for low-income residents.

Book launch postcard-Vancouver

Well, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau started off with a bang. On his first day in office, Trudeau made history by appointing a cabinet with equal numbers of male and female ministers. And less than 24 hours later, he restored the long-form census for 2016.

Both announcements are nothing short of revolutionary. In 2013, Huffington Post Canada reported that women made up only 25% of the federal legislature, and Alison Loat, co-founder and executive director of nonprofit advocacy group Samara cited lack of affordable childcare, long Parliamentary sessions lasting into the evening, and unrealistic constituent expectations as barriers to women serving as Members of Parliament.image-1

A number of countries have introduced quotas to promote female political participation: the UN reported in January 2015 that 34 countries have done so. In India, higher numbers of women on local councils positively influenced projects such as drinking water improvements, while in Norway the presence of women on municipal councils was shown to improve childcare coverage. In Rwanda, with so many men killed in the genocide of 1994, the country found itself with a population that was 70% female. A new constitution introduced in 2003 mandated that 30% of all representatives be women. Later that year, elections resulted in women holding 49% of the seats in the lower house of parliament–ten years later, women held 64% of the seats in the House of Deputies. New laws included the right for women to inherit land, open a bank account without authorization of a male figure, special rights for children, and legislation on women in the work force. Countries like Norway and The Netherlands have mandated that 30% of all management and supervisory boards be female.

Asked why he decided to run with gender parity on his cabinet of 30 ministers, Trudeau responded, “Because it’s 2015.” Canada went from 20th to 3rd in the world for percentage of women in ministerial positions–behind Finland and tied with France and Lichtenstein–prompting Jezebel to comment that “the sexiest thing about Canadian PM Justin Trudeau is his cabinet’s gender parity.” Only 26% of this year’s MPs are female, so clearly there’s a long way to go, but wow.

The long-form Census, mandatory and distributed to one in five Canadian households, was suddenly discontinued in 2011 just a few months before it was due to be sent out. Prime Minister Stephen Harper alleged that the long-form Census was to be cancelled due to citizen concerns over privacy, but when reporters researched the issue they found only a handful of concerns had ever been recorded and there had been no formal complaints to the Federal Privacy Commissioner. The move was widely considered an attack on scientific research, but representatives from the Canadian Medical Association, faith groups like the Canadian Jewish Congress, and economists like former TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond, decried the move. All of these rely upon the Census to determine the needs of the communities and clients they serve. Statistics Canada’s chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, resigned over the issue, saying a voluntary household survey would not produce statistically valid results. The voluntary survey that replaced the 2011 Census cost $22 million more to administer and had poor response rates, as expected: 30% of households did not complete the survey.

Trudeau campaigned on a promise to bring back the long-form Census and to appoint a cabinet with equal gender parity. Like most citizens, we Canadians are used to our politicians promising us things and then failing to deliver (even Liberals). Never have our skeptical souls ever been so surprised as to see a politician keep two of his promises on his first day  in power.

Now all he has to do is introduce proportional representation in the next election…care to make it a hat trick, Prime Minister?

“Canadians have turned the page on ten long years, and they reject a politics of fear and division.”  –NDP Leader Tom Mulcair


This year’s federal election has been a nail-biter from the beginning. When the election was called, we heard that the NDP was in an unheard-of lead at the beginning of a long campaign. By late summer, NDP leader Tom Mulcair had slipped in the polls in favour of the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau, and polling indicated that if the vote were held in September, it would be a three-way tie. With thirty new seats in Parliament this time around, a party would have to win 170 of 338 seats to form a majority government. After ten years of Conservative governments, voter apathy could be a major issue. In the 2011 election, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won with just 23 percent of the vote–low voter turnout and the NDP’s record-breaking number of seats being two reasons for the surprise majority.

But on October 19, 2015, another amazing electoral story unfolded. Atlantic Canada offered the first surprise of the 2015 election, sweeping all 33 ridings and turning the map Liberal red by 9:00 pm Eastern time. No one party has ever taken all the Atlantic seats. Half an hour later, polls closed in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Nunavut.

By 9:41 pm CBC was confident in predicting that Justin Trudeau would be the next prime minister–whether it was in a majority or a minority government–even though BC voters still had 19 minutes left to cast their votes. The 30,000 votes that had been counted so far indicated that the Liberals were closing in on 60 percent of the vote, leading or elected in 52 ridings. At this point, 35 percent of Quebec voters and 40 percent of Ontario voters had chosen the Liberals. The Conservatives were leading or elected in 24 ridings and the NDP were in third place with 8 ridings. CBC correspondent Chantal Hébert said that the determination of majority/minority for the Liberals could rest with BC voters.

Twenty minutes later, at 10:00 pm, the Liberals were leading or elected in 123 ridings with the conservatives at 67 and NDP at 13. Polls in BC were due to close. By 10:10 pm, the numbers were 155 L: 91 C: 22 NDP…with the Bloq Québecois leading or elected in just 7 ridings. NDP strategist Brad Lavigne was still optimistic for the Alberta and BC ridings, calling this “a change election”.

By 10:20 pm the riding totals were 173 L: 95 C: 24 NDP:9 BQ, but the CBC was still unwilling to declare a majority. Analysts reported that the gain for the Liberals was coming at the expense of the NDP, who won 105 seats in the 2011 election and now had just over 30, and that both rural and urban areas were turning red.

The Liberals took 34 seats in the 2011 election. As Peter Mansbridge said, four years ago the story was the NDP taking 103 seats and becoming the Official Opposition for the first time ever. This time, another reworking of the national landscape. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi noted that today was a chance to “close the page on this divisiveness, this difficult rancour that we’ve seen over the past three months.” Nenshi had spoken out against Conservative tactics such as the infamous niqab issue.

At 10:37 pm CBC was “now prepared to declare that the Liberal Government of Justin Trudeau will be in majority tonight.” The riding total was 184 L: 100 C: 29 NDP:9 BQ. The CBC compared the electoral map of 2015 to that of 1980, and ran a clip of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who began his victory speech with, “Well, welcome to the 1980s.”

In my home riding, Toronto-Danforth, incumbent Craig Scott narrowly lost to Julie Dabrusin…who? I have to say that I hadn’t even heard of her, or seen any Liberal signs in my neighbourhood, which was dominated by incumbent NDP Craig Scott and the Green Party’s Chris Tolley. But most of the Toronto region went red.Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 9.19.38 PM

On what CBC correspondents called “a bad night for the pollsters” and “a crushing night for the NDP”, the Liberals saw their first majority in Québec since 1980–when the elder Trudeau won. Chantal Hébert said it was the second election in a row where Québec voters embraced federalist parties. Only one-third of Quebec voters went Liberal, but the party won as many seats as Pierre Trudeau in 1980.

Prominent NDP MPs like Peggy Nash (Toronto Parkdale-High Park), Andrew Cash (Toronto Davenport), and Pat Martin (Winnipeg Centre), lost their seats. Justin Trudeau won his riding (Papineau), and Tom Mulcair kept his (Outremont). In Stephen Harper’s Calgary Heritage riding, he captured 67 percent of the vote and was in safe blue territory in Alberta. However, by the end of the night the Conservative Party had announced his resignation as party leader–at 56 years old, Harper had reigned as prime minister for a decade.Bloq Québecois leader Gilles Duceppe lost his seat. Green Party leader Elizabeth May kept her Saanich-Gulf Islands seat–but it was the only one the Greens got.

Parliamentary Seats

The final seat breakdown is 184 Liberal, 99 Conservative, 44 NDP, 10 Bloc and 1 Green.

Trudeau stated in his victory speech that Canadians voted for real change, that “this is what positive politics can do…Canadians from all across this great country sent a clear message tonight.” He portrayed himself as a leader who listens to voter concerns, saying his party took the “old-fashioned approach” of meeting with as many voters as possible and hearing about the kind of country they wanted. He claimed the values of openness, transparency, and trust.

The final riding breakdown at midnight Eastern time was 189 L: 102 C: 36 NDP: 10 BQ: 1 G. When all the polls had been counted in the wee hours of the morning, the total was 184 Liberal, 99 Conservative, 44 NDP, 10 Bloc and 1 Green. A quick look at the vote share shows that the NDP and Greens would have gotten more seats if we had proportional representation–but it may have cost the Liberals their majority.

Vote Share

The vote share is 39.5 percent Liberal, 31.9 percent Conservative, 19.7 percent NDP, 4.7 percent Bloc Québecois, and 3.5 percent Green. Under proportional representation, the ratio would have been 135 Liberal, 108 Conservative, 88 NDP, 17 Bloc, and 10 Green.

Welcome back, Canada.