If anyone needs proof that Vancouver is in a class of its own (our placement on the Most Liveable Cities and Worst Dressed Cities lists notwithstanding), here it is. Last May, Vanessa Richmond wrote an article in The Tyee which posed the question, “What the heck is wrong with men in Vancouver?” Considering the interest spurred by my blog post on Richmond’s article, I thought readers might enjoy Vancouver Magazine‘s dip in the tepid social waters of Shangri-La.

Katherine Ashenburg’s “Do Vancouver men suck?” (published on that most optimistic of dates, January 1, 2012) tears apart the West Coast male, citing passivity, lack of career motivation, over-attention to fitness activities like the Grouse Grind, and teenage fashion sense among the city’s singles. (To be fair, Vancouver’s third-place finish on the worst-dressed cities list can be attributed as much to women as men: Lululemon yoga pants are as common as the fleece-and-hiking-boots combo in this city.) Ashenburg writes, “The Grind is indeed a metaphor for the single life in Vancouver–daunting, strenuous, semi-natural, and so not romantic.”

As many readers commented, Vancouver men might be less likely to approach women, flirt with them, or assist them with daily activities like carrying heavy packages…but Vancouver women are also notoriously cold, treating harmless social advances as acts of harrassment. Ashenburg’s article opened with the tableau of a group of women bitching about the crappiness of men in this city, illustrating the unapproachable social characteristics that seem to evoke bitterness in the males of the species. One commenter, fedupvancouverguy, pointed out the mismatch between the overly-materialistic women portrayed in the article, who refuse to look past the scruffy, laid-back exterior that is the norm in a city where relentless pursuit of money is not the end goal: “The guys dressed in jeans and scuffed shoes sitting at the longbar at Joeys at 2 pm on a Tuesday might be losers, but there’s just as good a chance that they’re mining-industry guys discussing yet another deal to sell their find or project to a bigger firm for big, big money. Welcome to Vancouver.”

Whether or not readers agree with Ashenburg’s portrayal of the masculine, responses to the article consistently point out the social differences between Vancouver and international cities, notably a painfully strained cultural norm where cliquey behaviour and closed responses make it clear that your attempts at friendliness are going nowhere. VanMag‘s editors published one reader response to Ashenburg’s article: Jorge Amigo’s “Do Vancouver women suck?” (January 9, 2012) Amigo cites the numerous attempts he’s made at conversation with women over the past five years. Whether on the bus, the beach, the park, Vancouver women have returned his friendly comments with panic, coldness, and even outright rudeness. Numerous responses confirmed his suspicions: Vancouver women find random friendliness threatening, because inevitably they’ve been approached/trapped in weird conversations/followed home/groped by men they’ve met in public settings. However, what is interesting is that again, nobody is questioning that this is the norm in Vancouver. Are female residents of other cities, like Toronto, New York, or London, any less likely to have experienced random creepiness? Having lived in many different cities, I’d say that women’s fear of being approached by strange men is pretty universal. But somehow in these other cities, men and women flirt, ask each other out, and date…and the crux of Richmond’s, Ashenburg’s and Amigo’s articles is that, outside of the random creepy advances that exist in every city around the world, normal conversation and friendliness between the sexes are much more constrained in Vancouver. This applies to people trying to make friends here as well: numerous responses highlighted the cliquey behaviour of those who were born and raised here, already have their group of friends, and don’t want to add any outsiders to their close-knit group.

In a city renowned for its banal social scene and steeped in social media, have men and women forgotten how to actually talk to each other? If this weren’t the case, dating and relationship coach Ronald Lee would have no clients. But there is hope in another cliché: according to Amigo, the only places women let down their guard a little is in the ubiquitous coffee shop. There, a woman might “temporarily defrost her Vancouver ice-wall” and “respond normally when you ask to borrow a chair, offer a friendly nod when you comment on the amazingness of the shoes she’s wearing, poke fun at your accent, and appreciate your healthy banter.” While it seems to be acknowledged that there’s something in the water out west that kills mojo, more efforts at friendliness would seem to be the solution. As one of Ashenburg’s female interview subjects stated about the single scene in Vancouver, “Men need to take more risks and women need to shut up [about how crap men are].”

Since I finished my Ph.D. this month, today was officially my last day to use my U-Pass, and a sad day it was! Long past young adulthood, my grad school status awarded me a universal transit pass since 2005; the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University started the program as a sustainability measure way back in 2003 with the cooperation of TransLink and intense student lobbying. I’ve travelled the entire region with my U-Pass: it’s taken me to North Vancouver’s Lynn Canyon, Surrey City Centre, Richmond Centre, and New Westminster Quay, all for less than $30/month. Among other things, it’s allowed me to avoid car ownership for another six years; the U-Pass and my Modo car sharing membership meet all my travel needs. The U-Pass has since spread to encompass other colleges in Metro Vancouver, and has had a major impact on transportation mode shift in the region.

U-Passes are part of a demographic swing that’s taking place among young people in Canada and the US. Unbelievable as it may seem in countries that have espoused driving and highways as the only way to traverse our expansive vistas, young people are actually driving less than in previous years (check out the Transportation Research Board’s presentation on this among other demographic trends in the US). Car ownership rate has decreased among youth and young adults. Part of this shift is due to increased availability of programs like university U-Pass programs, better transit service, and growing mainstream popularity of sustainable transportation. Today’s young adults also spend more years in post-secondary institutions, take longer to enter the labour market, graduate with more debt, get married and have children later, if at all.

In honour of my last day with a U-Pass, I travelled to East Vancouver to the Pacific National Exhibition at Renfrew and Hastings. The #14 UBC/Hastings and #16 Arbutus trolley buses travel there, as well as the #135 express bus to SFU. The bus routes along Hastings Street transect the entire sociodemographic range that is Vancouver, from the suit-wearing jewellers in the stone-clad Birks store at Granville Street to the homeless and addicted masses gathering near the faded grandeur of Main Street’s Carnegie. It seemed a fitting way to end six years of unlimited, supercheap transit travel in Metro Vancouver; as of tomorrow, I’m buying full-fare tickets like everyone else.


Fans watching Game 4 in front of the Vancouver Public Library

Two weeks have passed since the Vancouver Canucks’ Game 7 Stanley Cup loss to the Boston Bruins and the ensuing riot. Other events have prevented my journalistic ink from flowing as freely as others’ on this topic…yet the amount of ink spilled (both literal and virtual) has done little to answer the fundamental question of why the riot happened. Opinions range from “there wasn’t enough of a police presence” (“Police actions questioned in wake of Vancouver riot”, CTV News) to “the potential for violence always exists in the human brain” (“Sometimes, is a riot normal?”The Georgia Straight, June 23).

I’ll let the experts discuss the reasons behind it, although I will say that I was as surprised as anyone at the Game 7 riot, having been downtown watching Games 4 and 6, both of which the Canucks lost. There were over 100,000 fans downtown on earlier game nights, and many of us watched the game on the big screens at Georgia and Hamilton Streets. There were big groups of police and security personnel standing around, as most fans went home in a state of quiet depression during the barren third period of each game (“Vancouver riot saw 800 cops on the street“, The Globe and Mail, June 28). The Stanley Cup Playoffs ran nine weeks this year, and considering it would have been the Canuck’s first Cup ever and Canada’s first since 1993, Cup Fever had built up over a two-month period.

I’ll also leave aside the alarming, or alarmist, media coverage, which quickly spun the story out of control. At 10pm on June 15th, a mere hour after the game ended, CTV reported that “Rioters left downtown Vancouver reeling from countless fires, widespread looting and numerous stabbings in the wake of a crushing loss for the Canucks.” (In fact, fifteen cars were set on fire, several stores were looted along Georgia and Robson Streets and there were exactly two stabbings.) Stories abounded about how people were trapped downtown after TransLink was forced to shut down bus service into/out of downtown. (Anyone living here knows that Vancouver’s downtown is a peninsula. You can walk east, south, and southwest about 20 minutes and you’re out of the core and can hop on a bus.) The international media quickly picked up the events unfolding through thousands of Twitter feeds, Facebook updates and incessant hand-wringing of middle-aged news anchors on CBC, CTV, and local Canadian networks. Even now, media comparisons persist between Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot (over 100 arrests) and Toronto’s G20 protests last year, an event still being pursued in the courts involving 19,000 police offers, 1,100 security guards and over 900 arrests, the highest number of mass arrests in Canada’s history.

I’m more concerned with how quickly Vancouver residents disowned the riot, saying it was not typical of Vancouver.

Fans walk home along Granville Street after Game 6

“It is extremely disappointing to see the situation in downtown Vancouver turn violent after tonight’s Stanley Cup game. Vancouver is a world-class city, and it is embarrassing and shameful to see the type of violence and disorder we’ve seen tonight.”   Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, June 15, 2011

NBA player Steve Nash, a Vancouver native, agreed the riot was an embarrassment for the city. Police Chief Jim Chu was quick to pin the blame on “anarchists and criminals” (though he took back those words within days). Gary Mason of The Globe and Mail wrote that rioters came from all over the region, not just Vancouver. Solicitor-General Shirley Bond said that the riot was due to a very young, predominantly male crowd–a different crowd than other Stanley Cup playoff nights. Spectators interviewed by the press indicated their disappointment, saying, “This is not Vancouver.” Later, when locals started penning their thoughts on the wood panels used to shore up broken windows of vandalized stores, a common theme was “Don’t judge us by a few hooligans.” Quickly, now, repeat after me: Vancouver is pretty. Not ugly.

In fact, this is Vancouver. Like any city, Vancouver has a history of violence, and riots have arisen out of political protest, civic unrest and hooliganism. In September 1907, 2000 citizens gathered in “anti-Asiatic riots”, smashing in the windows of Japanese business owners on Powell Street. A drunken riot involving 600 citizens and soldiers demonstrating in front of the Vancouver Police Station was broken up by tear gas and military police in August 1943. In November 1966, 5000 rioters swarmed into a three-block area along Georgia Street, throwing beer bottles, breaking windows, and starting fires in sidewalk trash bins after the annual Grey Cup parade; there were 200 arrests. In August 1971, Gastown residents rioted against a police crackdown on illegal drugs; 100 people were arrested. Less than a year later, in June 1972, 2000 people outside Pacific Coliseum hurled rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at riot-equipped Vancouver Police officers during a Rolling Stones concert (warmup act: then-22-year-old Stevie Wonder). Thirty policemen were injured as the mob tried to crash the concert. And of course, following the Canucks’ Stanley Cup loss in 1994, a riot ensued lasting six hours; 200 were arrested. Some of these riots were inspired by political events, but some involved a bunch of hooligans who thought it would be fun to smash some stuff up and set a few things on fire, just like June 15th, 2011. Many came prepared to riot regardless of whether the Canucks won or lost, with black knit masks, fire extinguishers that could be used to smash windows, and signs that said, “Riot 2011”. Countless people took digital photos of themselves with the burning cars, arms held high as if they’d scored a victory. In Vancouver’s first social media riot, Twitter feeds, Facebook postings, and the confessions of several teens who have been charged after the incident confirm how lightly participants took acts like setting cars on fire. They seemed to just go with the flow, and even seem surprised at the internet backlash that has led to them losing their jobs, being suspended from sports teams, and endangering their families. Like Stephen Quinn joked, some might even have hooked up as a result of their actions (“Missed Connections/I saw you (through the tear gas)”, The Globe and Mail, June 24).

Every city has the potential for inexplicable violence, because every city is home to hundreds of thousands of people. We did manage to hold the Olympics here without major incident. We’ve also held countless international events like Expo ’86, and community events like Car-Free Day on the Drive, the Kitsilano Greek Festival, and Chinese New Year celebrations, all of which draw thousands of people. All of these events are carefully planned with the presence of police, first aid, and security personnel. Most of the time, nothing goes awry. Occasionally it does (few outsiders remember that downtown windows were smashed by anti-Olympics protesters on the first day of last year’s Olympics). When it does, we all have to deal with it: the mayor, the police chief, the gutsy few that helped hold back looters (“Police seeking Stanley Cup riot Good Samaritans”, The Toronto Star June 27th) and more than 14,000 citizens who volunteered to help store owners clean up the shattered glass and debris on the morning of June 16th. These stories, both good and bad, become part of the city’s history, at least for those of us who can’t stomach the sugary-sweet myth of Vancouver. Those of us who live here know that this is also a city with persistent homelessness, sharply polarized incomes (with the poorest and richest postal codes in the country), and serious drug traffic. People exist here, like they do elsewhere, within a fragile network of social connections kept alive by a veneer of civility. Certain events (whether it be sports, politics, or inequity) motivate people to take sandpaper and blowtorches to the shiny surface, exposing the conflicts underneath. Other events, like “most livable city” contests, buff the veneer right up again. So never fear, politicians and business scions: the myth of Vancouver as some kind of laid-back hippie paradise (for rich people) persists.

Maybe this riot, like the 1994 Stanley Cup riot, the 2001 transit strike that lasted so long it produced skewed Census results, and the persistent smashing of Starbucks’ windows when they first opened on Commercial Drive, offers us a little insight into the complex social, income, and ethnic diversity of this city. These events, like the Olympics and Expo ’86 and the hundreds of festivals held here, are as much a part of the city as the Downtown Eastside and Kitsilano. The rioters, the Good Samaritans, the cleanup crew, and the internet vigilantes who have sent police thousands of pictures to help identify rioters: they are all Vancouver.


Vancouver has a lot of things going for it: beautiful scenery, coffee shops on every corner, and some fantastic local foods. But as my regular readers know, Vancouver also has undesirable characteristics: it’s ridiculously expensive, socially polarized and inward-looking. It’s also notoriously difficult for young singles to meet potential mates in this town. So when The Tyee‘s Vanessa Richmond asked, “What the heck is wrong with men in this town?” I couldn’t resist responding.

There’s a fair amount of Vancouver-bashing going on now that the Canucks have made it to their first Stanley Cup finals in 17 years. Most of the talk indicates the lukewarm attitudes the rest of Canada has towards “the most livable city in the world”.

 

“The fact is, as cities go, many Canadians view Vancouver as effete, a metropolis made up of snotty, latte swilling, cargo-shorts wearing, too-cool-for-school yuppies for whom pleasure and real estate remain their only abiding concerns.” Gary Mason, Can Canucks really be Canada’s hockey team?Globe and Mail, May 18, 2011)


“We are yuppie, expensive and shallow. Look at the place! We’d be stupid not to be yuppie, expensive and shallow. I’m writing this column in my hot tub while sipping a clever little Okanagan Pinot Gris. Life is good here.” Pete McMartin, “Dear rest of Canada, please get your own hockey team”Vancouver Sun, May 12, 2011)

 

Vancouverites know that it’s more than geography that separates them from the rest of Canada, and they’re proud of this cultural distinctness in the same way Alaskans revel in their separation from “the lower 48”. But there are specific characteristics that make it difficult for singles to hook up in VanCity (depending on what your definition of “hookup” is):

  • Strict Prohibition-era liquor laws make it more expensive to drink here and enforce earlier closing hours for Vancouver bars outside of the Granville Street club strip. When I moved here in 2005, I was shocked to discover that last call for bars and restaurants here is midnight…I mean come on, even in London, Ontario it’s 1:30am. It’s even illegal to take BC wines across the Alberta border, as a local radio reporter demonstrated recently (noted: I’m about to embark on a road trip to Calgary, so I guess we’ll have to stock up once we cross the border).
  • The weather. Canadians in Toronto and Montreal somehow manage to socialize in the rain and snow, but 8 months of rain per year literally dampens Vancouver’s social scene.
  • Urban planning. Metro Vancouver’s segmented land mass joined by precious few bridges makes socializing in the (tiny) downtown much more difficult than in other cities, where the downtown blends seamlessly into inner suburban neighbourhoods. It’s still a relatively small city (1.8 million for the entire region) and still largely suburban: people retreat to their homes after work, rather than sharing in the traditional urban pastime of after-work drinks that spill into dinner. And it’s still a relatively young city, so neighbourhoods don’t really have their own local bar/restaurant scenes. Vancouver still doesn’t feel like a vibrant urban centre.
  • Culture. Urban planner Gordon Price, quoted in Richmond’s article, notes that aloof behavior is “embedded in the cultural bedrock upon which this place was founded”. This British reserve means that men don’t approach women in bars, social hangouts, or even online dating sites: Richmond calls this “the eternal shyness of the VanCity man”.
  • Transience. Vancouver has a reputation that draws people from all over the country, and increasingly, all over the world. This creates a relatively transient population: many stay in Vancouver, but lots choose to return home when housing prices and incessant rain start to make them miserable. Many of my single friends have complained that the men they’ve dated weren’t into anything serious because they didn’t intend to stay here.

In other cities, singles aren’t hard up for hookups…how does anyone ever meet in VanCity? When I moved here for grad school, those of us from out of town quickly realized that the “townies” didn’t really socialize with us. They had their well-established networks of friends and family, and didn’t have the time or desire to add more. A classmate of mine who had moved here for work several years earlier told us how difficult it was to make friends here, and several of my friends have shared their own struggles in Vancouver’s social scene. One friend recently mentioned that her husband has had a tough time making guy friends. “You think it’s hard for women to make friends here?” she asked. “It’s ten times harder for men.” Even after living in Vancouver for six years, most of my friends are from out of town, and many from out of province. (Lest I be outed as “anti-Vancouver”, my husband and I noticed the same social phenomenon in Ottawa, where we lived for three years). This difficulty making friends in Vancouver inevitably extends to other social activities like dating.

I don’t know what the solution is any more than Richmond does; even her suggestion that women be more assertive in approaching men might be problematic in Vancouver (the men in her article are rebuffed when they approach women, so who’s to know how they would react if a woman were to make the first move?) All I can say is that Vancouver’s social scene is markedly different from Montreal’s, where waiters at restaurants flirt with every woman in sight, and Toronto’s (I dare you to find a Toronto friend who hasn’t gone out for after-work drinks in the last month).

Having spent some time working in the US and frequently immersed in American academic journals and conferences, I am well aware that there is a latent anti-intellectual bias that tends to rear its head during, oh…say national elections, or on the eve of major policy reform. Canadians, apparently, share this apprehension of “minority elites”.

The recent media storm over the Canadian census long form (see my previous post) has ignited a seemingly latent populace that believes that research, and researchers themselves, are pointless exercises in readin’, writin’, book-learnin’ and other geeky pursuits that don’t matter: that data will only be used in order to harass and over-tax the less-educated, privacy-minded general public. (Have a look at some of the articles posted in every major Canadian news outlet concerning the recent Census developments, and more to the point, have a look at some of the comments the “general public” posted.) But it’s not just your “average Canadians” who question the educated population. In today’s Globe and Mail (“Tories stall census probe, ask to hear from average Canadians”), Industry Minister Tony Clement has “already dismissed the controversy as one that only occupies “some of the elites in our country,” a phrase he also used when Canadian academics criticized the federal government’s decision to prorogue Parliament.

Maybe in countries where a university education costs more than a Bentley, it would be correct to state that educated people are a bunch of rich snobs who might be a tad removed from the fray (I said maybe). The vast majority of Canadian universities are public schools, meaning they have government-subsidized tuitions that are considerably lower than their American counterparts. Although tuitions have risen steadily in the last fifteen years or so, Canadian student loans are still readily available to most students. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) offers fellowships for Masters and PhD students. Admittedly, these have become rarer in recent years due to the Harper government’s decision to prioritize PhD topics directly related to the economy, and the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) just announced it would drop its Doctoral Fellowship program this year. However, it would seem that funding scarcity hasn’t had much of an effect on our already high education levels.

Higher education is fairly well-distributed among gender, ethnic groups and income levels in Canada. During the 1930s, a quarter of Canadian women were university educated, and to look at graduate schools now you’d be hard-pressed to find a majority of men in any discipline: women have out-numbered men in university admissions since 1981. In the 2006 Census, 25% of the Canadian population had a university degree higher than Bachelors level. By the way, this is lower than the 31% of Americans with this level of education. Almost half of the Canadian population (49%) has a college diploma, trade certification, or university degree. Of OECD countries, Canada has the highest percentage of the population (from 25 to 64 years old) with a post-secondary education (46%), slightly higher than the Japan (40%) and the US (39%), and considerably higher than the OECD average of 26%.

Many immigrants enter the country with educations far superior to those born in Canada. And because the vast majority of population growth in Canada is due to immigration, these university-educated immigrants have a major impact on our cities, our labour market, and our education systems. In 2006, 51% of recent immigrants to Canada had university degrees, compared to 19% of the Canadian-born population. Immigrants also out-perform native-born Canadians in prose, document literacy, numeracy and problem-solving, according to the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey. Even more importantly, immigrants raised in China, India, or the Philippines (Canada’s three largest source countries for immigrants) know the importance of education and instill it in their children. Let me be clear: it is well known in the poorer parts of the world that education offers an escape route out of poverty. In most cases, the only way out. Many of my classmates at the University of Toronto were the children of immigrants who had only been able to complete high school educations or, occasionally, community college. We were the first generation to attend community colleges and universities en masse, and it was expected that we do so, because our parents could not afford to go themselves when they were our age. Despite their scrimping and saving, many of us were unable to pay tuition without government-subsidized public schools, government-funded loans, scholarships and fellowships.

While a university attendance is lower among the low-income population, Statistics Canada published a study in 2007 that found lower rates of attendance were due to differences in academic performance, parents’ level of education, parents’ expectations, the high school attended, and other such factors. Only 9.5% of the youth in the study reported that financial constraints were a barrier to university attendance. While this is still cause for concern, it is somewhat reassuring that the rapid ascent of tuitions in the 1990s have not have more serious effects.

I’m not sure that it’s accurate to describe this one-quarter of the Canadian population with Bachelors degrees as elite, or “the most powerful, best educated or best trained group in society” (Cambridge Dictionary). Can the half of the population with post-secondary educations, or the half of recent immigrants with university degrees, all be considered elites? While there are some groups in Canada who are under-represented in higher education (only 8% of Aboriginals have university degrees, but 41% have post-secondary educations), we are generally an educated bunch.

Perhaps that’s the real crisis in the Harper government: realizing yet again that Canadians aren’t as dumb as his 2008 re-election might suggest. First, we rose up in the tens of thousands to protest proroguing Parliament, and now that over 200 groups have protested the removal of the Census long form, he’s had to personally speak out on what he probably considered a minor technical issue that would only concern “elites”. After both of these crises, the Conservatives dropped in the polls, creating considerable distress for Harper’s minority Conservatives. An educated populace is a problem when your government acts more like a monarchy than a democratically-elected minority government that could topple at any time.

As many of you know, there have been some very interesting developments in American cities over the past couple of years. Some cities have experienced decreased car ownership, there was a decrease in Vehicle Miles Travelled in 2008, and even the American Dream of homeownership has taken a left turn. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that the proportion of homes being built in central cities has doubled since 2006.

The EPA report Residential Construction Trends in America’s Metropolitan Regions summarizes a study that examined residential permit data over 19 years (1990-2008)  in 50 metropolitan regions. In roughly half of the regions, there has been a dramatic increase in the share of new residential permits built in inner cities and older suburbs.

Among the cities that saw a substantial increase are New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, Miami, Chicago, Denver, Portland, Seattle, and Fort Worth. But even smaller centres like Birmingham, Milwaukee, and Kansas City saw substantial increases in the share of residential permits in their inner cities. Cities with low increases include St. Louis, Detroit, and Salt Lake City, while Cincinnati, Cleveland, Hartford, Providence, and Buffalo all had slight decreases. Particularly interesting are the graphs which show detailed trends for specific metropolitan regions, contrasting urban fringe, 1st tier suburb, and city permits. In many cases, we can see the beginning the mortgage crisis on these graphs: between 2004 and 2006, urban fringe areas began their decline and cities began their ascent.

A lot of this has to do with housing type: national data confirms that the proportion of single detached housing permits decreased from 71% in 2000 to 59% in 2008. Townhouses remained relatively stable, while condos increased from 4% to 7%, rented condos from 16% to 24% and large multifamily buildings from 11% to 23%. I find these numbers surprising: little by little, the American Dream seems to be crumbling before our eyes. We have to remember that not all of this change can be pinned on the dismal housing market, since the trends persist over 19 years.

The EPA cautions that, while the data reveals a substantial shift in residential patterns, a large percentage of construction still takes place on previously undeveloped land. While the share of residential permits increased in many regions, in some these still account for less than half the overall share at the regional level. They would like to do further research on what is driving the shift: real estate market fundamentals or public sector policies? What type of residential units are being built on previously-developed land, and what percentage of these are transit-accessible? However, they did feel safe in saying that, “This acceleration of residential construction in urban neighborhoods reflects a fundamental shift in the real estate market,” citing lower crime rates in urban areas and increased demand for homes in walkable neighbourhoods close to jobs.

Decreased car ownership rates among youth and increased transit use in several US cities are certainly not widespread, but each offers us unique insights into urban growth and development: the US cities with increased transit use often had recently made major investments in public transit, while decreased car ownership may be related to demographic shifts or increased environmental awareness. There has been a lot buzz lately about more radical initiatives adopted by some cities, such as car-free streets, car-free zones, and even car-free cities. Again, while these trends may not yet be widespread, their popularity is growing.

Transportation planner Jarrett Walker suggests that the cities with the largest percentages of car-free people are older cities with dominant universities and higher than average poverty.  Walker examined the fifty highest percentages of car-free people living in incorporated cities over 100,000, using the Carfree Census Database. His method is hardly scientific: he reasoned that most of the “top 50” cities on the list are older cities with an urban form created for walking and transit. Newer cities like Portland, despite all its transit-oriented development and progressive land use planning, still has only a fairly low car-free population at 14%. This pales in comparison to New York City (#1 at 55.7%) and cities we wouldn’t expect to have a high car-free population: Buffalo (31.4%), Atlanta (23.6%) Detroit (21.9%) and Los Angeles (16.5%), which are all in the top 50. While Walker’s suggestion about age of city makes sense, it is indeed puzzling that Portland could have fewer car-free households than these other cities, which we usually associate with car-dominant sprawling cities. The fact that poverty might be a factor explains Buffalo and Detroit, and many others on the list.

Treehugger.com recently made a list of the six cities that could easily go car-free: Geneva, Switzerland; Davis, California; Paris; Guadalajara, Mexico; Malmö, Sweden; and Guangzhou, China.  Many of these cities  have already made concerted efforts to increase transit use, decrease car driving or commuting, and increase or redesign pedestrian and bike infrastructure.  However, Guadalajara and Ghangzhou are just starting to realize the value of sustainable transportation: Guadalajara and Guangzhou are about to introduce BRT systems. Guadalajara closes 15 km of its streets to traffic for six hours every Sunday and is considering a proposal to pedestrianize its historic centre. In Ghangzhou, pedestrian alleyways still predominate over car-dominated streets, but as in many parts of China, it may be a hard sell to keep them that way as the cities grow rapidly and become more Westernized.

Car-free lifestyles may not be for everyone, but there are definitely areas of our cities that could stand to be car-free for a few hours or days of the year. We see this every month or so with festivals that close down roads for a couple of days. Many European cities have car-free city centres or zones that remain permanently closed to cars. New car-free developments have also been built, and decreased car parking requirements give people the option of paying less for a condo while giving them the option of car-sharing. While these are small steps, they may add up to lasting change in the way people think about car ownership, transit ridership and active transportation. I mean who would have thought that Buffalo and Detroit had such high car-free populations? This is definitely something to explore further, particularly whether poverty is indeed strongly linked to car-free lifestyles.

A couple of years ago, when I presented the results of my Masters thesis on the social travel patterns of youth and young adults to TransLink, I got some mixed reactions. On one hand, the younger transit planners in the room nodded and understood the changing travel patterns, with more young people choosing to remain car-free. On the other hand, the older planners expressed surprise that young people were continuing to use transit, walking, and cycling well into their 30s: given my small sample size, they thought my study only reflected real transit junkies and that the trends did not reflect trends in the general population. I’m pleased to say there are now a number of other studies out there that confirm my results that young people really do have different transportation preferences, and not just because they can’t afford to own cars.

A recent article in the LA Times portrays the younger generation as increasingly anti-car. JD Power and Associates conducted a study of hundreds of thousands of “conversations” on car-related sites, personal blogs and sites like Twitter and Facebook in order to get a sense of teens’ (12-18) and young adults’ (22-28) perceptions of cars. According to the market research firm, the reasons are only partly economic. They also found that social networking sites may be relieving the need for young people to physically meet up with friends and socialize, decreasing the need to travel. They found that young people generally had negative perceptions about the auto industry (not surprising considering the fall of the Big Three automakers and the failure to address cleaner-burning engines).

This is no news to most of us in planning, but Elizabeth Caitlin Cooper’s recent study of SFU students is definitely food for thought. Cooper’s study found that young adults who had used a U-Pass during their time as students were much more likely to be regular transit riders after they had graduated. Her thesis, “Creating a Transit Generation”, was featured on the front page of the Georgia Straight in August. Yuri Kagema wrote about decreased car use among Japanese youth in the Oregon Business News earlier this year. Car manufacturers are naturally concerned at this turn of events (the LA Times article appeared in the “car” section of their newspaper) but the news from the US, Japan, and Canada seems to indicate changing trends.

It’s definitely time to reconsider the notion that car ownership is a mark of adulthood, and that everyone automatically switches to driving when they turn 16 (particularly with graduated licensing these days!) I will be taking a deeper look at youth and young adults’ transportation trends in Canada’s 10 largest Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) in the December issue of Plan Canada, so stay tuned all you planners out there.

Health care is a polarizing issue; it always has been. Because it is a service that is offered privately in some places and publicly in others, there is an ongoing debate about its ethics, its efficiency, and its reliability. The ethical debate is simple: in countries with private health care, the rich receive much better treatment than the poor. The efficiency debate is more complex: most argue a publicly-funded system is more efficient, saves costs, and treats all patients equally, while others argue the private system is superior. Reliability is a characteristic that is frequently brought up in health care discussions: wait times, availability of general practitioners, availability of equipment. But it often is difficult to get behind the political double-speak to the reality of health care provision.

Health care is a crucial factor in planning more socially equitable cities and regions because anyone can be affected by health problems or accidents, and public health care protects the middle and lower classes from bankruptcy and homelessness. Before the US mortgage crisis, medical bills were the leading cause of bankruptcy in the country, affecting 2 million people annually (this 2005 Harvard study showed that three quarters of these had health insurance at one time, 56% were middle class and over half had attended college). A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Medicine reported that 62% of bankruptcies in the US were due to medical bills and 80% of these people had health insurance. A 2008 study in Health Matrix: American Journal of Law-Medicine showed that for 49% of homeowners going through foreclosure, the foreclosure was caused by illness, unmanageable medical bills, lost work due to a medical problem, or caring for sick family members.

The biggest debates at the moment are happening in the US, the only industrialized country that does not have public health care. US President Barack Obama has been getting a lot of flack for his proposed health care reforms, which would introduce a government-run insurance program to make health care more affordable. Obama’s approval ratings have fallen nine percent since July 2009, to 52 percent, which critics say shows waning support for a national health care program. Because of our proximity, the US and Canadian systems are constantly being compared. The scary thing is that while many Americans are terrified of the Canadian system, pro-economy Canadian politicians want our system to be more like the Americans’, with private clinics offering services such as MRIs in Quebec. American politicians will cite long wait times for surgeries and MRIs, inability to find a general practitioner, and rumoured higher costs as evidence that public health care doesn’t work. However, these comparisons are faulty for several reasons.

The myths demystified

First, the long wait times have only existed since 1996, when the Liberal government, faced with a budget shortfall due to a prolonged economic recession, cut overall spending levels and merged health care transfer payments to the provinces with transfers for other social programs. Serious cuts were also made to federal housing programs and education, resulting in an erosion of the social welfare state. These cuts, in addition to an aging population and high inflation rates in health costs, have caused problems with the system such as fewer available beds, shorter recovery time for surgeries, and increased workload for doctors and nurses. Fees have also been introduced for certain services such as travelling to a hospital by ambulance, eye exams, and physiotherapy. In BC and Ontario, each resident now pays a health premium annually. But the government has made significant strides in reducing these wait times: in 2004 a $5.5 billion Wait Time Reduction Fund was established and most provinces now have websites that allow us to check on wait times for specific services in our areas. Long wait lists are not a form of government rationing, as some Americans believe, but an unfortunate side effect of decreased government spending on health care. The wait lists, rather than prioritizing wealthier patients, ensure that all patients have equal access to scarce and high-demand services. Most health statistics in Canada are at or above the OECD average, including life expectancy, infant mortality, perinatal mortality, and percentage of health care costs paid by government. On the contrary, health care in the US is consistently ranked the lowest in the developed world by organizations as venerable as the World Health Organization.

Second, there are many studies showing private health care is much more expensive. Malcolm Gladwell, in a 2005 New Yorker article, wrote that “One of the great mysteries of political life in the United States is why Americans are so devoted to their health-care system.” He writes that efforts have been made to introduce universal health care six times: during the First World War, the Depression, the Truman and Johnson Administrations, the Senate in the 1970s, and the Clinton years. Americans spend $5,267 per capita on health care every year, almost two and half times the industrialized world’s median of $2,193; the US spends more than a thousand dollars per capita per year—close to four hundred billion dollars—on health-care-related paperwork and administration, whereas Canada spends only about three hundred dollars per capita.

In 2005, Dr. Quentin Young, national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program said that “The paradox is that the costliest health system in the world performs so poorly. We waste one-third of every health care dollar on insurance bureaucracy and profits while two million people go bankrupt annually and we leave 45 million uninsured. With national health insurance (‘Medicare for All’), we could provide comprehensive, lifelong coverage to all Americans for the same amount we are spending now and end the cruelty of ruining families financially when they get sick.” This year, the World Health Organization showed that the US spends 12.7% of its GDP on health expenditures, well above the worldwide average of 8.7% and 3.4% in South-East Asia. Canada spent 10.5% of its GDP on health expenditures in 2007. A 2007 report from the Coalition for Health Care said that national health expenditures were expected to outpace the growth of the GDP. The higher costs get in the US, the more people are uninsured.

Third, because we have the world’s most inflated health care costs just across the border, many of our more profit-hungry doctors are lured south. This means fewer doctors for Canadians, particularly general practioners. This, in addition to rampant health care cuts by successive neoliberal governments, is the reason for our doctor shortages.

I may as well put to rest other myths of universal health care voiced by the American public and mocked in Michael Moore’s Sicko: yes, we can choose our own doctors. No, the government will not force euthanasia on you. No, we’re not communists. And no, the economy will not collapse if universal health care is introduced.

As Gladwell writes, “moral hazard”, the idea that insurance can change the behaviour of the person insured, has become entrenched in American economic thought, policy and legislation. If Americans had universal health care, the idea goes, they would “waste” it; making them pay for it ensures it’s only used when it’s really necessary. But this only works if we treat health care like a consumer product, which it plainly is not: we only go to the doctor when we’re sick, and even then, we don’t really want to go. And there’s no way of knowing when a visit to the doctor could make sound economic sense: in the case of having moles checked for skin cancer, or having regular Pap smears. Early detection could save the health care system a good deal of money. Many insurance companies have moved to the “actuarial model” which charges more to insured people with serious health conditions, and their employers, basically guaranteeing that, in many states, these people cannot get health insurance. Under the social-insurance model, which Canada, Germany, the UK, Japan, and all other industrialized nations follow, everyone pays equally into health care, and everyone benefits equally.

The long fight for universal health care: Tommy Douglas

The reality is that health care has always been a political issue, and not just in the US. Tommy Douglas, the “father of health care” in Canada, fought long and hard to achieve universal health care in 1961. Douglas was leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) from 1942 and premier of Saskatchewan from 1944-1961. The fact that Douglas led the first socialist government in North America was intrinsically tied to his bold introduction of universal health care. There was also a personal connection: Douglas injured his leg at age 10 and developed osteomyelitis. He would have lost the leg to amputation had a local doctor not seen the condition as a good subject for his students, agreeing to treat Douglas for free. Unable to volunteer for service during WWII due to the old leg injury, Douglas set his sights on health care reform.

Douglas attended Brandon College to prepare for his future as a Baptist preacher. He was attracted to the social gospel movement, which fused Christian principles with social reform. While in his religious capacities at Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, Saskatchewan during the Great Depression, Douglas became a social activist and joined the CCF. He was elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 1935. He led the CCF to provincial victory on June 14, 1944, winning 47 of 53 seats in the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan. They won five straight victories until 1960, and were responsible for the creation of the publicly-owned Saskatchewan Power Corporation; Canada’s first publicly-owned car insurance service; a large number of Crown Corporations; legislation that allowed unionization of the public service; a significant passage of the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights that preceded the adoption the UN’s Bill of Rights by 18 months; and the first program in Canada to offer free hospital care to all citizens. Thanks to the postwar boom, the Douglas government also paid off the huge public debt left by the previous Liberal government and achieved a government surplus.

In 1958, newly elected Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, also from Saskatchewan, promised that any province seeking to introduce a hospital plan would receive fifty cents on the dollar from the federal government: this promise was renewed in 1959. The Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Bill was introduced in October 1961 and given Royal Assent in November, while Douglas went on to lead the newly formed New Democratic Party. Woodrow Lloyd became his successor as premier of Saskatchewan.

On May 1st, 1962, the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act was to be adopted, but the province’s doctors went on strike and 90% closed their offices, forcing Lloyd to delay adoption of the act. The government brought in doctors from Britain, the United States and other provinces in order to staff community clinics set-up to meet demand for health services. The Act was passed July 1st, 1962. By mid-July some of the striking doctors returned to work. Lord Taylor, a British physician who had helped implement the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, was brought in as a mediator and the “Saskatoon Agreement” ending the strike was signed on July 23, 1962. As a result of the agreement, amendments to the Act were introduced allowing doctors to opt-out of Medicare and raising fee payments to doctors under the plan, as well as increasing the number of physicians sitting on the Medical Care Insurance Commission. By 1965, most doctors favoured the continuation of Medicare. The strike was a significant test for Medicare. Its failure allowed the program to continue and the Saskatchewan model was adopted throughout Canada within a decade. The political divisions within the province aggravated by the strike contributed to the Lloyd’s government defeat in the 1964 provincial election. However, even though the Saskatchewan Liberal Party of Ross Thatcher had opposed the plan, Medicare was so popular that Thatcher’s government left it in place.

The program’s success led Diefenbaker to appoint Justice Emmett Hall, a noted jurist who also hailed from Saskatchewan, to chair a Royal Commission on Health Services in 1962. In 1964, Hall recommended the nationwide adoption of Saskatchwan’s model of public insurance. The program was created in 1966 under Lester B. Pearson’s minority government, with the NDP, who held the balance of seats, putting significant pressure on the Liberals. The federal government was to pay 50% and the provinces the rest. In 1984, the Canada Health Act was passed, prohibiting user fees and extra billing by doctors.

The moral dilemma

As Gladwell writes, the universal health care question is really quite simple: “Do you think that redistribution of risk is a good idea? Do you think that people whose genes predispose them to depression or cancer, or whose poverty complicates asthma or diabetes, or who get hit by a drunk driver, or who have to keep their mouths closed because their teeth are rotting ought to bear a greater share of the costs of their health care than those of us who are lucky enough to escape such misfortunes?”

As a Canadian whose parents (both registered nurses) immigrated to the country the year universal health care was introduced, I’m proud to say that we do not feel this way. Canadians, including Shirley Douglas, daughter of Tommy Douglas, have rallied to save our publicly-funded health care system throughout recessions and political changes. A 2009 poll by Nanos Research found 86.2% of Canadians surveyed supported or strongly supported “public solutions to make our public health care stronger.” A 2009 Harris/Decima poll found 82% of Canadians preferred their healthcare system to the one in the United States, more than ten times as many as the 8% stating a preference for a US-style health care system for Canada. A Strategic Counsel survey in 2008 found 91% of Canadians preferring their healthcare system to that of the US. In the same poll, when asked “overall the Canadian health care system was performing very well, fairly well, not very well or not at all?” 70% of Canadians rated their system as working either “well” or “very well”. Since the passage of the 1984 Canada Health Act, the Canadian Medical Association has been a strong advocate of a publicly-funded health care system, including lobbying the federal government to increase funding, and being a founding member of (and active participant in) the Health Action Lobby (HEAL), although some provincial medical associations would like to see a larger private role. Tommy Douglas was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 1998 and voted “Greatest Canadian” in a nationwide Canada Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) contest in 2004.

No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go bankrupt or lose their home because they get sick. Period.

There is a lot of debate out there about whether or not there are schools in Canada equivalent to the American Ivy League (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale). I’m not sure why this is so important for people to know, but I do know that as a potential applicant for teaching positions at US universities, an Ivy-League education is considered the best. Even in Canada, loyalty to the old prestigious universities is not in the least diminished by Maclean’s annual rankings.

As a Canadian, I don’t know anyone who did an undergraduate degree at an Ivy League school, so my first introduction to the concept was when my classmates in landscape architecture began applying for masters programs over a decade ago. Inevitably, they chose to apply to American Ivy League schools like Harvard and Cornell. Interestingly, their main reason was that “all the famous landscape architects went there.” (not surprising: Harvard was the first landscape architecture program in North America and the only one for many years). Having visited the Graduate School of Design and seen their students’ work around this time, we were surprised to find that our work was quite comparable to theirs; in some cases, better. One friend, who applied to and finished a Harvard Masters in Planning, said that the main advantage of the school was the alumni network, which would ensure he could find jobs anywhere. The Harvard degree also exposed him to very prominent experts and guest lecturers. Even more interesting, he is now living and working with many of our former classmates who did not invest in Ivy League educations. The same applies to a couple of our classmates who attended Cornell for the Masters in Architecture, and now work at architecture firms with others with “less prestigious” degrees.

The thing is, Canadians know about the American Ivy League, but we don’t really get it. I mean, we get that they’re prestigious and expensive and old. But we’re hampered by the fact that universities in Canada are virtually all public institutions, and there are few expensive, elite blue-blood institutions in the country aside from elementary and secondary schools like Branksome Hall and Ashbury College. According to the Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials, there are 94 universities in Canada (83 with degree-granting status) belonging to the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada. There are 27 private colleges, the vast majority being theological schools: when you take these out, there are only 6 left. Tuition costs at Canadian schools are much cheaper than American schools, although generally the older, larger schools cost a bit more and since tuition deregulation in the 1990s the professional programs can charge more than the standard tuition. They can also offer more funding, so it evens out: even Statistics Canada found that there has been little decrease in the proportion of lower-income students attending university now than before tuitions began their rapid ascent in the 1990s. So the Ivy League is a tradition we simply do not have here. Ditto those other prestigious American schools that are supposed to impress us. American students enrolled at Canadian schools often find their introductory conversations go a bit like this:

Canadian: So you’re from Pennsylvania?

American: Yes. I went to XXX School. (pause for reaction)

Canadian: Oh yeah? (blank stare)

American: (confused) It’s a really good school.

Canadian: Ohhhh. (realizing the faux pas in not knowing the names and reputations of all 45670 American schools) Well that’s great. (unimpressed)

That’s right, I said it: we don’t know your schools the way you don’t know our prime ministers. Or our provinces. Or our capital.

That said, the four universities that many consider to be the “Canadian Ivys” are the University of Toronto, McGill University, Queens University, and the University of British Columbia. The only logic to this seems to be that they are old and therefore have ivy-covered buildings! These schools, because of their age, have extensive and well-known alumni who teach, do research, win Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, and otherwise propagate the mythology of their being better schools than the rest. There is also something called the Group of Thirteen, which includes the above-mentioned schools plus the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, Dalhousie University, Université Laval, MacMaster University, Université Montréal, University of Ottawa, University of Waterloo, and University of Western Ontario. These schools meet informally twice a year to discuss joint research initiatives and between them hold 66% of Canada Research Chairs, which is proportional to the amount of research funding they bring in from SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR. And if I’m going to be honest, these schools probably get more famous guest lecturers.

But the Maclean’s rankings show a very different story: each school has very different strengths. The magazine divides Canadian universities into three categories: primarily undergraduate, comprehensive undergraduate, and medical doctoral universities. The schools are evaluated on a range of characteristics, including spending on student services and scholarships and bursaries, funding for libraries, faculty success in obtaining national research grants, and their reputation for being innovative. The top-ranked primarily undergraduate schools are Mount Allison and University of Northern British Columbia. The top-ranked comprehensive undergraduate schools are Simon Fraser and University of Victoria. And the top-ranked medical doctoral schools are McGill, Queens and Toronto. Some schools have highly-ranked business or teaching programs, others are strong in medicine or law. Indeed, some of these professional programs are known in their individual fields as “the best.” Some have a small student-to-teacher ratio, others have better resources or funding. And then there are the student favourites, typically small schools with a friendly atmosphere in a beautiful location, like Mount Allison.

I attended two of the supposed “Canadian Ivys”: University of Toronto and University of British Columbia. I know only a handful of people at either of these universities who attended a private school before entering these seemingly august institutions (ie., these aren’t the elites of society). I don’t believe that these schools have better students, better teaching, or better facilities than other schools in the country: in some cases, Maclean’s shows they fail in all three areas. Graduates of these schools don’t seem to conduct themselves any differently, have access to better alumni networks, or get better jobs than graduates of other schools. While working as a landscape architect in England, for example, I ran into graduates from the universities of Guelph and Waterloo who were working for British municipalities; in Ottawa I met many government employees who were graduates of Université Laval, Carleton University, and the University of New Brunswick. I have yet to meet a Canadian who was impressed by the schools I attended, nor have I encountered any innate sense of superiority among graduates of these schools. Yet when I attend conferences, I frequently find myself having this conversation:

American: Oh, you’re at UBC?

Me: Yes.

American: Oh, that’s a really good school. (impressed)

Me: Is it? (seemingly amused, but actually quite curious)

American: (confused) Well, yes.

Me: Why would you say that?

American: (stumped) I…hmm. (because I’ve heard of it)

The relatively level playing field among Canadian universities is probably one reason why Canada has the largest proportion of university graduates among G7 countries and the highest percentage of university graduates in the workforce. Immigrants in Canada have particularly high levels of university attendance: 37% compared to 22% of the Canadian-born population. Among recent immigrants (those who entered the country less than two years ago) 48% of females and 56% of males had a university degree according to the 2006 Census. Women have outpaced men in university attendance since the late 1970s, and more lower-income people are attending university in Canada than ever before. These types of changes have led to much more diversity in Canadian universities. And there is considerable evidence that nurture, as opposed to nature, is the key to success in education: Malcolm Gladwell vividly illustrates this in Outliers.

With only a handful (15) universities in Maclean’s medical doctoral category, Canadians often seek jobs in other countries; this is particularly true in academia. But we know that we will be judged by the school we went to, because that seems to be a common trend in the American university hiring process. A glance at the faculty directories of an Ivy League school reveals that virtually all of their faculty did their doctorate or post-doctorate work at an Ivy League school. Lou Marinoff, in a recent article in Inside Higher Ed outlined how his philosophy department, in City College at the City University of New York, narrowed down their search for a new faculty member from 627 applicants to 27 long-listed and 6 short-listed ones. A major criteria in the first step was holding a degree from “a good university.” As Marinoff writes, “Members of our department earned their Ph.D.s at Columbia, Harvard, Oxford, and University of London. Additionally, City College is known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat,” with distinguished alumni that include nine Nobel Laureates, more than any other public institution in America. Our faculty members are expected to live up to this legacy.” Of course publications, research, teaching, administrative service were up there too.

I would love to say that this kind of academic snobbery does not exist in Canada, but it is pretty standard here to imitate Americans. Most of my friends in design professions hold Ivy League degrees in higher regard, and since my era at U of T’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, the school has been completely rebranded with graduates of Yale, Princeton and Harvard. Many Canadian faculty members are American, or educated in the US, and bring these ideas with them. I can definitely say that the “reputation” of the school seems to play a role in the admissions process at SCARP. The ridiculous thing about this is that our school (which is a graduate program only) accepts applications from undergraduates in any discipline. And according to Maclean’s, as well as my own experience, programs vary considerably from school to school. So using school “reputations” makes no sense: you would have to be a master of every undergraduate program in the country to know what a “good school” was for that particular program. It’s one thing for a medical school to compare B.Sc students from everywhere, or engineering programs to compare their B.Eng applicants; it’s quite another for a multidisciplinary program which draws its students from programs as diverse as Forestry, French, Geography, Architecture, and Canadian Studies. It’s part of the reason why our school uses such a complex application process, evaluating transcripts, a research statement, reference letters, and work experience equally.

Interestingly, Marinoff’s philosophy department invited 6 candidates to their school for interviews. Here is his summary of their performance: “All the finalists were impeccably well versed in their subjects matter, but not all succeeded in establishing rapport with the students. One lectured remotely, as if from afar; another failed to engage them in dialogue; a third took insufficient account of whether the class was grasping the material. Some lectured clearly and evocatively, encouraged and fielded questions on the fly, bridged gaps in students’ understanding by providing additional context where necessary, and covered the material in the allotted time. The best finalists attracted a throng of students after the lecture, having whetted appetites for further learning. The top two bundled humor with their lectures or slides, which palpably enhanced the ambiance and helped establish rapport. “Edutainment” is an American neologism, after all.”

When it comes right down to it, these candidates (CCNY hired the top two) succeeded not because of their Ivy League pedigrees, but because of their ability to engage students and cope with the classroom setting most effectively. Now, whether they gained these credentials as a result of their “superior” educations is a matter for debate: they were likely supported and mentored more than students at other schools, because their high tuition costs resulted in more resources (again, Outliers is relevant). I suspect these outstanding candidates worked hard at developing their skills and lecturing style, and had a real passion for teaching. Preferential selection of candidates based on their school’s reputations was really just a useful filter in this case, a way of decreasing the number of applicants to consider carefully, albeit one that probably eliminated many worthy candidates from lower income and minority backgrounds who couldn’t afford Ivy League educations.

All this to say that I don’t believe there is a Canadian Ivy League, nor do I think we need one. It’s too bad that universities, professors, and students can’t get over these ideas of being “the best”, or producing the “best and the brightest” students. This relentless competition is even seen in what Richard Moll, in his 1985 book, called the “public Ivys”, eight American schools that were “successfully competing with the Ivy League schools in academic rigor… attracting superstar faculty and in competing for the best and brightest students of all races.” It’s even worse that the myth of the Canadian Ivy League is being relentlessly perpetuated by recruiters who travel all over the world with glossy brochures featuring the old ivy-clad buildings (international student tuitions are higher than those for Canadian citizens, so the schools encourage it). But the Canadian reality is a bit different, and there really is no reason a University of Alberta grad and a McGill grad should not be considered equally.