We can all rest easy. Despite many studies showing increased income inequality and a shrinking middle class in Canada, a rags-to-riches story is more likely to happen here than in the “land of opportunity.”

University of Ottawa professor Miles Corak, a social policy economist and former director of family and labour research at Statistics Canada, and his co-authors Lori Curtis (Professor of Economics, University of Waterloo) and Shelley Phipps (Professor of Economics, Dalhousie University) found that Canadians are three times more economically mobile than those in the US. The difference is largely due to those at the very top and the very bottom of the income distribution. In Economic Mobility, Family Background, and the Well-Being of Children in the United States and Canada, the three researchers found that social supports such as the Child Tax Credit, paid parental leave benefits, and schools funded through provincial income taxes help ensure that children receive better care and schooling than in the US, where these supports are absent and schools are funded through local property taxes, leaving poor neighbourhoods with failing schools. With sky-high tuition fees at universities, the richest Americans can buy their children the best educations and tutors. These differences between rich and poor mean that if you’re born poor in the US, you tend to stay poor; this also applies to the 1%–the very top of the income pyramid. For example, although “the average Canadian child is not as affluent as the average American, the poorest Canadian is not as poor in an absolute sense as Americans at the bottom of the income distribution.” This may help explain why discussions of class are more prevalent in the American literature and popular press.

The authors caution that rising income inequality rates in Canada could erode the high rate of economic mobility that we see now. Indeed, a look at their graphs shows that we still have issues: 15% our poorest children may still grow up to have incomes in the lowest decile (Figure 3, p7), but they have a better chance at the 7th, 8th, and 9th deciles than they do in the US. More Canadian children are born in the lower income deciles than American children (Figure 8, p33). But Table 1 (p21) shows some clear differences in the characteristics of families and parents. In Canada, 2.1% of children are born to teenage mothers; in the US, it’s 8.3%. In Canada, 14.9% of mothers are single compared to 22.1% in the US. Far more mothers and lone mothers in Canada have completed some post-secondary education or a post-secondary certificate (but oddly, more American mothers have completed degrees). Health problems among the poorest mothers are also more prevalent in the US, likely due to the cost of health care. As the authors suggest, Canadians must protect policies such as paid parental leave, the right to return to their jobs after the birth of a child, tax-transfer programs that help reduce the severity of poverty, and funding for schools through provincial income tax, ensuring a more equal distribution of resources across municipalities and neighbourhoods. Although we have fewer barriers to health care, we need to ensure the lower-income population has sufficient knowledge on navigating the health care system and can pay for prescription medication.

Corak, Curtis and Phipps write that “The citizens of both countries have a similar understanding of a successful life, one that is rooted in individual aspirations and freedom. They also have similar views on how these goals should be attained, but with one important exception: Americans differ in that they are more likely to see the State hindering rather than helping the attainment of these goals. Yet, at the same time the citizens of both countries recognize the need for public policy to contribute to reaching this ideal, with Americans believing more than Canadians that a whole host of interventions would be effective in improving the prospects for economic mobility. One interpretation of these findings – an interpretation that only becomes evident in a comparative context – is that in some sense this need is going unmet in the United States.”

For the past three years, SCARP has been honoured to have high-profile planning scholars with us for one week under the Amacon-Beasley Scholar-in-Residence program. Our 2011 scholar is Dr. Susan Fainstein of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Dr. Fainstein has also served as Acting Director of the planning program at Columbia University and as professor of planning at Rutgers University. Her many publications include the comprehensive edited volumes Readings in Planning Theory (2003, Blackwell) and Gender and Planning (2005, Rutgers University Press). She will be here from January 31st until February 4th, and will do a number of guest lectures at SCARP, Geography and Landscape Architecture. She will also be here for SCARP’s 60th Anniversary Gala and this year’s student symposium: Metropolis: Growing Just or Just Growing.

The Scholar-in-Residence program offers a great opportunity for students in related disciplines to chat informally, learn from, and become inspired by academic planners. Our first such opportunity came in 2009 with Dr. Tom Campanella from University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). His path through landscape architecture to planning, and his interest in urban history and redevelopment, made him a very engaging and personable speaker. His interests in publishing for both academic and general audiences were also inspiring: his latest book, The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), tackled the rampant redevelopment taking place in China’s major cities. Our 2010 Scholar-in-Residence was Dr. Emily Talen of Arizona State University, who has written extensively on urban design, New Urbanism and socially mixed neighbourhoods.

Today, SCARP is hosting a “teach-in” of Fainstein’s latest book, The Just City (2010, Cornell University Press). Faculty members Penny Gurstein, Leonie Sandercock and Tom Hutton, along with PhD candidates Silvia Vilches and Victoria Barr, will discuss and critique The Just City in preparation for her visit. Three of us (Victoria, myself, and fellow PhD Candidate Jennie Moore) have also organized a roundtable discussion on justice and equity in planning (“Theorizing Growth in the Just Metropolis”) during the upcoming symposium where we will discuss the questions:

  1. How can planners adrress issues of justice/ethics in their day-to-day work?
  2. Is “justice” simply about equity or should it include notions of the “good,” democracy, sustainability?
  3. What is the scale of the Just City? (Is it only within urban boundaries or in articulation to hinterlands and other cities as well?)

Susan Fainstein and John Friedmann will be joining us for this workshop. Here’s to an intellectually stimulating few weeks!

I’m getting pretty tired of writing about great policies and projects that we’ve proposed in Canada, only to have to write later that the government has decided not to fund them. Toronto’s Transit City project, an ambitious attempt to link the suburban parts of the region to reliable rapid transit through the construction of eight LRT lines, is under threat. Despite being approved by the federal and provincial governments, the province is threatening to cut Transit City funding by half, decreasing the viability of the project considerably.

A map showing the proposed LRTs

I’ve written before about how complex governance is when it comes to public transit in our municipalities. Vancouver’s struggles to build the UBC rapid transit line and many Canadian municipalities’ policies to better link transit and housing are detailed in several other posts. Even when projects are approved, it’s no guarantee they will be built because we have no stable source of funding for public transit and no consistent governance structure that enables the transfer of federal or provincial funds to municipalities. Transit City originally proposed eight lines: Sheppard (14 km), Finch West (17 km), Eglington Crosstown (33km), Scarborough, Don Mills, Jane, Scarborough Malvern, and Waterfront West. The province agreed to fund the first four back in 2007: of these, three are new lines (Sheppard, Finch West, and Eglinton) and the fourth is a retrofit of the existing Scarborough RT with four new stations. The province’s proposal to cut funding in half will put the Eglinton LRT, Scarborough RT, and Finch LRT at risk: the Sheppard line is already under construction while Eglington and Finch were to break ground this year and Scarborough in 2012.

As U of T Social Work professor David Hulchanski illustrated a couple of years ago, increased incomes in the areas around the existing two subway lines make it all but impossible for lower- and middle-income people to live close to rapid transit.

Hulchanski's map showing the need for rapid transit

Hulchanski’s most recent map shows the areas which have decreased in income in the past forty years against the proposed lines: the new LRT lines would be making transit much more accessible to the rapidly-growing areas of the region (read his plea for action on ttcriders.ca). My own work with immigrants in Toronto shows that they are willing to travel long distances on infrequent public transit buses only for a short time; eventually they succumb to buying one, two, and three cars. They live further and further out because that’s where affordable housing is…little realizing their transportation costs will eat away considerably at their savings.

Last week mayor David Miller recorded a public service announcement on the subway PA system telling people to call the Premier’s office and their MPPs to oppose the Transit City cuts. Many of the local mayors are also urging their citizens to do the same. All sorts of organizations, from Toronto Environmental Alliance to the Public Transit Coalition have links to the appropriate politicians, and there is a Save Transit City site. I urge you all to call, email, write the MPPs and Premier McGuinty and if you’re in the Toronto area, pack the Council chambers this Wednesday April 21st.

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.

In the last few months we’ve seen the birth of another useless media term related to urban planning: “shovel readiness”. Now, I’d be the first to agree that words like “stimulus”, “funding”, and “proposal” are not exciting. But frankly, “shovel readiness” is not riveting either (for one thing, it needs to be explained). Apparently we need something to make these urban planning stories exciting to regular people. That’s too bad, because the stories already have the right stuff: drama, political intrigue, intense competition. Infrastructure funding is a huge problem in both the US and Canada, although the Americans generally believe in spending when times are tough: witness the 1950s interstate system project, the largest public works project in history. Canadians believe in hoarding, giving tax breaks to the rich, and whining about how little money we have, apparently.

About 300 proposals have been submitted to the Obama administration for $8 billion in high-speed rail funding under the federal stimulus. This article from National Public Radio (NPR) shows how projects in advanced planning stages (“shovel ready”) with state or private funding already committed will probably be the winners in the competition for funds. These include high-speed links from Orlando to Tampa FL and Vancouver BC to Portland OR, while southern states face legislative or social barriers to high-speed rail. Alabama’s 1901 constitution, for example, forbids the state Department of Transportation from investing in alternative transportation, including rail. NPR suggests that a multi-modal approach is necessary, with a variety of transportation agencies collaborating to create multimodal hubs, otherwise high-speed rail riders will find themselves stranded in car-dependent areas surrounding railway stations. This approach may also help the proposals win federal stimulus funding.

In Toronto, the city managed to raise two-thirds of the funds needed to buy 204 replacement streetcars, including $1.2 billion from the City and $416 million from the Province of Ontario. Mayor David Miller had applied for federal stimulus funding, saying the streetcars would generate jobs in Thunder Bay (where 25% of the new streetcars would be built), Quebec, Manitoba, and the Greater Toronto Area. Bombardier’s report on the proposal said it would generate 5,000 direct jobs and 14,000 indirect jobs. Infrastructure Minister John Baird hinted earlier that the federal government would not fund the streetcar replacement project because it does not meet federal stimulus requirements: it doesn’t meet the 25% Canadian content requirement, does not generate jobs in the Toronto area within a two-year period and will not be completed by March 31, 2011 (and they actually used the term “not shovel ready”).

The federal government did announce $200 million in infrastructure funding for Toronto to help fund 500 infrastructure projects, including upgrades to the transit system and water mains. The City had pledged $400 million itself for these projects, which include repairing the Coxwell Sanitary Trunk Sewer, upgrading transit stations with better security, resurfacing roads, and parks and recreation projects. But no streetcar funding.

Toronto City Council held an emergency meeting on September 11, 2009 and decided to pony up the additional $417 million themselves by deferring some other capital projects. Kudos to them, and Miller, for believing the streetcar purchase was critical for the GTA.

See? Drama. Intrigue. Political positioning. And a last-minute decision to to ahead with “what’s right”, as Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty put it. Who needs made-up words?

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.

In a previous post, I joked about the obvious discrepancies in funding between humanities/social sciences and natural sciences…and I say this with all due respect for the two-level trailer in which SCARP has been housed for many years. Interestingly, Inside Higher Education recently reported that funding was the most important factor in PhD completion for US PhD recipients. They also found major differences between humanities/social science students and math/science/engineering students: while 76% of science students were satisfied with their funding, only 60% of humanities students were. And with good reason: social sciences are less likely than others to receive offers covering six or more years, even though many humanities PhDs take longer than six years to complete. Humanities doctoral students were more likely than those in other fields to receive offers covering only two or three years.

I would say that in the current neoliberal political climate, these inequities are typical. Science, math, and engineering are somehow considered more valid subjects of study than english, sociology, and architecture. And with many universities increasingly looking to the private sector for capital and program funding, many software, pharmaceutical, and in BC forestry companies are filling the gaps. I could debate the morals of this to no end, but this won’t solve the basic issue, which is that fields of study which produce products, technologies, or services that are marketable or patentable are favoured in the current climate. This is a real shame, because we need writers, sociologists and architects just as much as we need lab technicians, mathematical modellers and engineers. To quote the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council,

Research in the social sciences and humanities advances knowledge and builds understanding about individuals, groups and societies—what we think, how we live and how we interact with each other and the world around us. Knowledge and understanding inform discussion on critical social, cultural, economic, technological, environmental and wellness issues and provide communities, businesses and governments the foundation for a vibrant and healthy democracy. Through research and training programs, SSHRC fosters the development of talented and creative people who become leaders across the private and public sectors and who are critical to Canada’s success in the globalized 21st century.

The distinction between arts and sciences is only semantics anyway, particularly in newer fields that cannot be easily categorized. I’ll use landscape architecture an example, which was not a university degree program until the postwar era. My undergraduate degree in Landscape Architecture, for which I received a BLArch, neither a BA or a BSc. This is because at the University of Toronto, the faculty is independent and does not fall under either arts or sciences; actually this is a moot point at U of T, where there is a combined Faculty of Arts & Sciences. If I had gone to another school, I would have received a BSCLA, particularly if the landscape architecture program was in the agriculture or applied science faculties; or a BA, if the program fell under geography. So at some schools landscape architecture is a science, at some it falls under social sciences, and in others it is in neither category. Now that landscape architecture is mainly a graduate degree program, students with a range of bachelors’ degrees apply and are accepted into these programs. None of this has anything to do with the courses, which span subjects like dendrology, site engineering, design studios, and planting design and are approved by a national accreditation board.

That’s too unique, you say? Most fields can be much more easily categorized? Okay, let’s take geography. If you specialize in physical geography, you might be studying rock formations, specific types of algae, or air pollution in a range of cities. On the other hand, human geography would lead to studies of women and technology, the impact of immigration policies, or patterns of gentrification in cities. At UBC and U of T, the first option would lead to a BSc and the second to a BA, with each having very different courses. But things start to blur a little in the Masters programs where both BA and BSc students are admitted to one program, and they graduate with either an MA or an MSc depending on what their undergraduate degree was. SCARP takes this same approach: if your undergraduate was in Forestry, you will graduate from SCARP with an MSc; an undergraduate in French will earn you an MA. Notice that this has nothing to do with the courses you take: two separate students could in fact take the exact same courses during the Masters program, one ending up with an MA and the other an MSc.

There are many fields that don’t easily fall into neat arts or science categories, not to mention the journalism student specializing in health and science or the psychologist who studies cognitive behavioural therapy. But because of the funding inequities, if you fall into one of these academic grey areas, you’ll be lumped in with the humanities…and that means less money for your education. Which means you’ll probably have to work during school, which will lengthen the time you take to complete. This is definitely an issue at SCARP, where the scarcity of funding and lack of teaching assistant positions compels many of us to work part-time.

This type of funding inequity is self-perpetuating: fewer people can afford to back to school to study humanities and social sciences, so there are fewer graduates, so the pool of funding decreases, so studying humanities and social sciences seems less popular and less valid. A bunch of us at SCARP signed the petition to prevent SSHRC from prioritizing business-related studies, to no avail. But there has been some media coverage about the inequities so hopefully some day they will even out. I would advise potential grad students in the social sciences and humanities to work for a few years and save up some money before starting grad school. That was my M.O., and it’s worked out perfectly.


Aquatic Ecosystems Research Lab (top left), Chemical Engineering, Hugh Dempster Pavilion, Institute for Computing Information and Cognitive Sciences/Computer Science, Life Sciences Center, new Annex to the Sauder School of Business, Institute for Asian Studies, Forestry Sciences Centre

If you’re a Canadian university student, there’s an easy way to tell where your faculty stands in the university’s hierarchy. Just look around you. Does your building feature the latest in LEED technology, up-to-the-minute computer facilities, and lecture theaters equipped with comfortable chairs and ceiling-mounted digital projectors? You’re in the money…and by that I mean you’re a business or science student. On the other hand, if your faculty is located in what we used to call “portables” in grade school, and lacks all but basic lighting and plumbing, you’re probably in the social sciences.

This useful guide demonstrates these principles at UBC. One of the oldest, and most antiquated, universities in Canada, UBC has nothing but sharp distinctions between the “haves” and “have nots”. First, the rich folks. Computer science are a good example, with three (count’em, three) major buildings, the newest of which only contains classrooms (the Hugh Dempster Pavilion). Or the Forestry faculty, whose massive timber-lined fortress was built on donations from Weyerhouser and MacMillan Bloedel. If you’re studying science or business, your faculty is associated with, and sponsored by, mega corporations, and these important ties ensure you have the best facilities on campus. You also get a pile of grants, all the teaching assistantships you want, and often free lab or computer equipment. Not only that, your faculty is highly regarded by the university, politicians, and the public in general.

Your faculty could be one that used to be considered important. You know, like chemistry (not chemical engineering…chemistry). Or geography. Or sociology. Subjects that commanded a lot of prestige back in the day when universities were about learning first and patenting inventions second. Your building was either built 100 years ago or 40 years ago, the two major university-building eras in Canadian history. So either you’re in a beautiful stone building that has just been brought up to safety codes, or you’re in a 1960s modernist bunker.

Education, Biological Sciences, Earth and Ocean Sciences, Music,

Chemistry (South Wing), Chemistry (North Wing), Education, Biological Sciences, Earth and Ocean Sciences, Music, and Geography

If your faculty is considered marginally important to society (ie, your research does not involve mathematical predictions, computer models, or patentable organisms or technology) then the university and the public have ensured that your faculty is in marginal condition. There’s no need to lock your doors because the computer equipment is at least a decade or two old. It would be difficult to tell if vandals had set upon your building the night before. And suffice it to say, your classrooms are barely sufficient and your graduate students are crowded into tiny offices with 1970s chairs.

Binning Studios (Visual Arts), Landscape Architecture Studios, Visual Arts, Community and Regional Planning, Women's and Gender Studies

Binning Studios (Visual Arts), Landscape Architecture Studios, Visual Arts, Community and Regional Planning, Women's and Gender Studies

Neo-liberal principles are certainly alive and well at UBC. At this rate it won’t be long until we’ve eroded even English and History as valid subjects of study. Not to mention the difficulty of getting research funding in the social sciences: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council was recently forced to cut its funding to cover only business-related degrees. What about NSERC, the natural sciences equivalent? No worries, the government and multi-million dollar industries still support you.

Think your university is more balanced in its capital spending? If it’s publicly funded, like most Canadian universities, it’s pretty likely they’ve embraced public-private partnerships, which means only the rich shall survive.

Most Canadians would deny that theirs is a racist country. Scholars refer to the White Paper (1976) on multiculturalism and the Multiculturalism Act (1988) as proof that Canadians “celebrate diversity.” But there are many sides to this story. While the idea of race has officially been dispelled since geneticists working on The Human Genome Project found as much genetic variation between members of the same ethnic group as between different groups, the idea of difference persists. The Multiculturalism Act encouraged people of every ethnic group to retain their own languages and cultures while integrating into their lives in Canada. Yet there are constant barriers to this in practice.

Structural and institutional racism

Canadian banks may no longer practice mortgage redlining, but there are plenty of other examples of structural and institutional racism in our society. Carlos Teixeira, an Associate Professor at UBC (Okanagan), did a study in 2006 comparing housing trajectories of Portuguese immigrants from Angola, Mozambique and the Azores. He found that black Portuguese immigrants faced significant racism in the housing market compared to white Portuguese immigrants. Robert Murdie, who has now retired from York University, found similar results in his comparison of Portuguese and Somali housing trajectories (2002). There are many studies documenting the difficulties immigrants to Canada face in the labour market: employers will not hire anyone without “Canadian experience.”

While most Canadians with anglo-sounding names would probably urge incoming immigrants to keep their names, in everyday life it is often just easier for Chinese immigrants to go by their English variants, like Josephine for Ji Ling. Indian immigrants often shorten their names to anglo-sounding equivalents: I recently met a Kal who had shortened the considerably lengthier Kalvinder, and a Dee whose full name was Deepali. Indeed, my adolescence and young adulthood was peppered with anglo-ethnic hybrid names. While we were often criticized for “wanting to become white” (by our co-ethnics) or “losing our roots” (by our white friends), in practice it is just annoying to have your name mispronounced and misspelled on a daily basis.

Philip Oreopolous’ study at the University of British Columbia suggests prejudice against ethnic names may be more than just an annoyance. A Professor of Economics at UBC, Oreopolous created 6,000 mock resumés to represent recent immigrants and Canadians with and without non-English names. They were tailored to job requirements and sent to 2,000 online job postings from employers across 20 occupational categories in the Greater Toronto Area, Canada’s largest and most multicultural city. Applicants with English-sounding names got almost 40% more callbacks from employers than those with Chinese, Indian, or Pakistani sounding names. All applicants had at least a Bachelor’s degree, plus any additional qualifications specified in the job ad, and each applicant listed three previous jobs. Changing only the location of the applicant’s job experience, from Canadian to foreign, lowered callbacks by 5-10%. Employers valued Canadian work experience far more than a Canadian education. Oreopolous concluded that there is considerable employer discrimination against ethnic Canadians and immigrants; even when the person evaluating resumes spoke with an accent or had an ethnic-sounding name, they still preferred English-sounding names by a factor of 1.42. Oreopolous points out that this type of discrimination is illegal under the Ontario Human Rights Act. In this case, both the employer and the potential employee lose; the employer has purposely overlooked a potential employee with the appropriate skills and education. Oreopolous’ results cannot help but highlight institutional racism, which is more than a little surprising in the GTA, which is 46% foreign-born; China, India, and Pakistan are the three top source countries for immigrants. In a city and region so multicultural, that has been an immigrant reception center for over a hundred years, there is no way for employers to tell whether a person is a first-, second-, or third-generation immigrant, solely by looking at their name.

Modern racism

While Oreopolous points out the obvious legal implications of this discrimination, many scholars would call this modern racism rather than institutional or structural racism. Modern racism is a slippery concept: the Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a policy in 2005 stressing the subtler forms of discrimination. Examples of modern racism in the workplace are:

  • Exclusion from formal or informal networks
  • Denial of mentoring or developmental opportunities such as secondments and training that was made available to others
  • Differential management practices such as excessive monitoring and documentation or deviation from written policies or standard practices
  • Disproportionate blame for an incident
  • Assignment to less desirable positions or job duties
  • Treating normal differences of opinion as confrontational or insubordinate
  • Characterizing normal communication as rude or aggressive
  • Penalizing a person for failing to get along with someone else, e.g. a co-worker or manager, when one of the reasons for the tension is racially discriminatory attitudes or behaviour of the co-worker or manager

Differences in name, accent or manner of speech, clothing and grooming, diet, beliefs and practices, and leisure preferences can bring out subtle acts of racism. Because of language differences, member of various ethnic groups communicate in different ways. For example, in some cultures it is normal to wait several seconds after a person is finished speaking before responding; in anglo-North American culture the pause time is under one second. Those with the longer pause time would think they were being constantly interrupted by those with the shorter pause time. Underlining, or repeating the last few words of a person’s sentence at the same time as they are speaking, is common in some cultures but considered rude by North Americans.

Another common form of subtle racism is co-opting part of an ethnic culture: it is considered fashionable for a white person to wear a sari or practice yoga, but not an Indian person. I would add that in Canada we have the practice of “celebrating diversity” by having silly cultural festivals, yet we do not tolerate difference on a daily basis. A few years ago, a friend of mine told me his daughter was asked to return one day from school because she had henna tattoos on her hands. My friend, a Canadian of Indian ethnicity who is married to a white Canadian, said the school official told him the school did not allow tattoos at school. A few months later, the same official asked if his daughter could bring some sort of Indian food to a school multicultural festival.

Assuming that members of the same ethnicity are all the same is another example of subtle racism. Most of my Indian friends fend off questions about where the good Indian restaurants are, if we like Bollywood movies, and whether we have been to India; yet in most cases, we would have been teased mercilessly for liking Indian food, movies, or culture during our childhood and adolescence. In Outliers (2008), Malcolm Gladwell addresses the assumption that Asians are better at math. We even find examples of racism in terminology: what groups fall under the heading of “Asian”, and can they be grouped together as if they are all similar?

Joe Darden, a Professor of Geography at Michigan State, argues that denial of subtle and institutional racism allows Canadians to avoid changing legislation or monitor practices that discriminate against non-whites. Along with most other scholars, Darden points out that Canada has a long history of racism in immigration policy (The Significance of White Supremacy in the Canadian Metropolis of Toronto, 2004). He suggests that changes in the economy, and not changes in attitudes among white policy makers, were responsible for the removal of discrimination in immigration policy. In the post-war era, the need for skilled workers opened up immigration to non-European countries, while racist attitudes have remained. Like many African American scholars, Darden believes that there has been a transition from overt and institutional racism to subtle racism. Although significant Aboriginal populations have lived in Canada for thousands of years and British Columbia had small Chinese and Sikh populations around the turn of the century, Canada’s racist immigration policies only began to change in 1952. Most non-Europeans in Canada entered the country after 1967 changes to the Immigration Act. Fifty years is not a lot of time to eliminate racist ideologies.

The idea of racism in Canadian society may seem impossible, but various studies have proven there are subtle forms of racism in the housing market, labour market, and in social interactions. Oreopolous’ study shows that racism is present in the most multicultural city in Canada, therefore it must exist in cities with less cultural diversity. Many believe that cross-cultural education is the key to breaking down preconceptions about other cultures, understanding how different communication styles and values. In a multicultural society, cross-cultural training should be offered for all ages, from kindergarten to university, in schools and in the workplace. But Oreopolous’ study, as well as the earlier studies by Murdie and Teixeira, indicate there is also some legislative work to be done, as well as monitoring of employers, housing agencies, real estate agents, and landlords to ensure discrimination is not a factor in hiring, promotion, renting or buying a home in Canadian cities.

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