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Montreal’s nightlife returns, high schools inch closer to normalcy

Following a 19-month shutdown, karaoke bars and nightclubs reopen in all of Quebec

On Nov. 15, dancing and karaoke singing became part of Montreal’s nightlife once again as Santé Québec continues to ease COVID-19 restrictions. Meanwhile, high school students in the city are no longer required to wear a face mask while seated in a classroom.

Karaoke bars and dance floors were forced to close in March 2020 and experienced a longer shutdown across Quebec than in most Canadian provinces and U.S. states. 19 months later, the long-awaited reopening has brought mixed results for Montreal’s nightlife.

La Muse karaoke bar, located near Concordia’s SGW campus, has yet to witness its usual, pre-pandemic volume of customers. Having worked at the establishment for nearly five years, Jack Yu said the reopening did not result in a full house of excited singers.

“It’s hard for us. We were the first ones ordered to be closed, and now we’re the last ones who are able to reopen — it’s been financially challenging all along,” said Yu in an interview with The Concordian. “We had a lot of Asian customers for karaoke, and many of these [international] students went back home, got locked down in Asia and just couldn’t come back,” he explained.

Yu also suggested that some may still be hesitant to attend such venues as the pandemic continues, adding that “the business is still taking a big hit despite being reopened.”

However, nightclubs witnessed a vibrant scene on St. Laurent Blvd. and downtown on Friday night, with hundreds of university students eager to step on the dance floor. While physical dystancing is not required inside the venues because of the vaccine passport system, Health Minister Christian Dubé made it clear that face coverings must still be worn while dancing.

Rocco Balboni, manager of the Jet Nightclub on Crescent St., said the first dancing night since the COVID-19 lockdown was largely successful for both the clients and the business.

“It was a full house and the experience has been the same as during pre-COVID days. Of course we try to enforce the mask rule, but other than that, it’s back to normal,” he said.

When asked about the unpredictability of COVID-19 and pandemic-related restrictions, Balboni noted, “We’ll take it one day at a time and thrive to push forward. That’s been our philosophy since day one, and we’ll keep going in that direction.”

High school students have also been included in the latest wave of easing restrictions, since wearing a face mask in classrooms is no longer mandatory while seated. Ora Bar, a Concordia University journalism student, has a sister who witnessed the rule changes first-hand as a Secondary 5 student at Chateauguay’s Louis-Philippe-Paré school.

“My younger sister feels quite comfortable with the new rules, and she knows that pretty much everyone is vaccinated. Her classmates already took off masks for eating in classrooms before, so she believes the risk has almost remained the same,” said Bar.

Around 85 per cent of her sister’s classmates now attend classes without a face mask. “She said the remaining students who aren’t yet comfortable with taking off their mask aren’t obliged to do so, but those who make this choice — like herself — now have a chance to live normally again,” Bar explained.

Masks still remain mandatory in elementary schools, as the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged five to 11 was only approved by Health Canada on Nov. 19. Dubé announced that Quebec aims to administer one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to every child in this age category by Christmas. 

Meanwhile, Quebec Premier François Legault suggested that “most [public health] measures will disappear” for everyone in the province by early 2022, if the children’s vaccination rate reaches 80 per cent.

 

Photograph by Catherine Reynolds

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Mayor Valérie Plante wins re-election

Plante enters her second mayoral term with majority support

Valérie Plante won a second term in Montreal’s mayoral race on Nov. 7, earning 52 per cent of the vote. The mayor surpassed her main opponent Denis Coderre by nearly 60,000 votes, and 11 out of 19 boroughs in Montreal will now be governed by Plante’s Projet Montréal party.

In the next four years, the returning mayor promises to improve housing affordability, increase funding for the SPVM, develop more cycling infrastructure and public transit, and also revitalize Montreal’s downtown core.

“We will put all the effort in the world to continue making Montreal a city that we are proud of, where we can raise our children, study, work, and live out our retirement in an active way,” said Plante with a smile during her victory speech.

It was a difficult loss for former mayor Denis Coderre and his Ensemble Montréal party. In late October, the two frontrunners were within one percentage point of each other in the polls, but there was a clear winner on election night as Coderre lost by a 14-point margin.

“The results are clear: you win some, you lose some. But I am very, very pleased I was pushing ideas,” said Coderre at the Ensemble Montréal event on election night. “[…] And I was focusing on the people, because I love the people, I love Montreal and that’s what’s most important — to bring people together!” he exclaimed.

Meanwhile, Movement Montréal’s Balarama Holness, who promised to make Montreal an officially bilingual city-state, came in a distant third place with seven per cent of the vote.

Montrealers, however, did not have a strong showing at the polls, as the 2021 municipal election had a voter turnout of just 38 per cent. The participation rate was four per cent lower than in 2017, despite a larger number of polling stations, mail-in ballots, and the four-day advanced voting.

Michel Bissonnet, mayor of the Saint-Leonard borough, told The Concordian that voting was especially difficult for the elderly population.

“When you’re older and you have to go to vote and you have four [candidates] to vote for, they have four ballots at the same time. It’s easy when it’s a federal or provincial election, it’s one person. But when you get four people, you have to put a picture of the man they recognize — they can’t read, they are not happy,” explained Bissonnet, referencing the fact that voters need to pick the mayor of Montreal, their borough mayor, and city councillors separately.

Unlike the Plante-Coderre race, several boroughs had a very close election that resulted in premature celebrations and recount requests. In Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Ensemble Montréal’s Lionel Perez declared victory over Projet Montréal’s Gracia Kasoki Katahwa on Sunday night, as he was leading in the vote count on Nov. 7. The next morning, however, Katahwa stunned Perez by pulling nearly 200 votes ahead of her opponent by the time all votes had been counted.

In Quebec City, the mayoral race was even more controversial as media outlets made false projections and declared Marie-Josée Savard as the new mayor. Two hours after delivering a heartfelt speech thanking all of her supporters, Savard ended up losing to Bruno Marchand by just 834 votes. TVA Nouvelles and Radio-Canada have since apologized for their decision to call the election prematurely.

As for Montreal, the Plante administration promised its citizens a safer city in its second mayoral term. Projet Montréal is committed to investing an additional $110 million to reduce gun violence, increase the police force by 250 officers, and install body cameras on SPVM agents by 2022.

The mayor also plans to expand Montreal’s blue metro line towards Anjou and build a new line from Montreal-Nord to Lachine — though this promise dates back to Plante’s 2017 campaign and has yet to be fulfilled. Moreover, seniors may be able to ride the STM network free of charge in the coming years.

Other campaign promises include the creation of 60,000 new units of affordable housing, extended operating hours for downtown bars and restaurants, more green spaces, and free parking on evenings and weekends downtown to encourage commercial activities during the holiday season.

 

Photograph by Bogdan Lytvynenko

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Record-high gas prices strike Montreal: a new reality for drivers

Some Concordia students now consider leaving their car at home

Montreal gas prices have reached an all-time high, costing drivers up to $1.58 per litre. As the demand for driving has grown in the past few months, along with increases in crude oil prices, the gradual return to normalcy has entailed more expensive gasoline.

On Jan. 1, one barrel of Western Canadian Select (WCS) oil cost about $41.70, which then skyrocketed to nearly $76.90 by Nov. 5 — representing an 84.4 per cent increase in less than one year. However, Moshe Lander, a senior lecturer of economics at Concordia University, told The Concordian that crude oil prices are not the only factor influencing this spike.

Moshe explained that, as global transportation continues to resume, the shipping and aviation industries are competing with Canadian drivers for the same resources and thus overall demand for gasoline has increased. In Quebec, there are additional oil transportation costs because gasoline is not produced locally, on top of the price of oil refining and federal and provincial taxes.

However, Lander noted that one should look at the bigger picture, and compare the situation with pre-pandemic prices instead.

“The fact is, gas prices have barely gone up at all. Pre-pandemic, gas was around $1.40 or $1.45 in most gas stations around Montreal. So add a couple years, inflationary pressures — it’s perfectly reasonable,” said Lander. “But if you’re comparing it to lockdowns, with no one going to work […] while gas was priced at $1 or less — this looks jarring.”

Nevertheless, current gasoline prices pose financial challenges for some Concordia students, who are used to driving to the Loyola campus on a regular basis. For Ora Bar, a third-year journalism student, driving is a necessity since she commutes to and from Chateauguay four times a week.

“Last time I had to refuel, it hurt,” said Bar. “I am now considering switching to buses, though it’d take me three times as long to get to university. This would create lots of anxiety for me since I’d have to leave very early to avoid being late.”

Bar estimates that her 20-kilometre commute from the South Shore would take up to one hour and 30 minutes. The five-dollar transit ride involves several transfers which Bar is afraid to miss due to low frequency on certain routes.

“We’re still students, it is expensive! I certainly hope the government considers more practical bus schedules and reduced fares,” Bar explained, saying that she is hoping to find a more affordable alternative to driving in November.

Meanwhile, Gabriela Serrano, a third-year neuroscience student at Concordia, has already decided to leave her vehicle at home for the foreseeable future.

“Because of the price increase, I can no longer drive to Loyola every single day. I realized that taking public transit is cheaper, coming from the downtown area,” she said. “But it was more convenient to drive than to take one bus, the metro, and then another bus — my commute to NDG is a bit more complex now.”

Serrano hopes the government will take action to avoid a surge in gas prices. “The pandemic was already a heavy burden for our economic situation, and now with simple things like driving to work becoming more expensive, it’s another stress,” she explained.

Gasoline, however, is already being heavily subsidized by the Canadian government. Last year, the country’s oil and gas sector received $18 billion in government financial support. In fact, Lander suggests that rising gas prices may lead to a turning point in North American car culture.

“That is a century in the past, we’re moving forward now. We have to price gasoline properly, […] at $5 a litre. As long as you continue to subsidize gas-fuelled automobiles, it’s making things worse — and it’s the hardest part for the consumer to understand,” he added.

Shifting such subsidies toward eco-friendly initiatives would help the city combat climate change. According to Lander, this would result in creating more pedestrian-friendly streets and cycling paths, limit Montreal’s urban sprawl, and make more funds available for efficient public transit.

The economist believes high petrol prices would push Montrealers to adopt electric vehicles at a faster rate. As fuel combustion makes the transportation industry responsible for 24 per cent of global CO2 emissions, rising gas prices could cause a shift towards a greener future, one driver at a time.

 

Photographs by Kaitlynn Rodney

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Pro-democracy protests turn deadly in the Kingdom of Eswatini

At least 29 killed, hundreds wounded in the nation’s fight against monarchy

Since June 2021, the southern African nation of Eswatini has been fighting for democracy and economic justice while King Mswati III deploys lethal force against protesters. Having been in power since 1986, the king refuses to step down as the country experiences one of the most violent unrests in its history.

Officially known as Swaziland until 2018, the citizens of Africa’s last absolute monarchy are rallying for major government reforms. These include a democratic selection process of Eswatini’s prime minister and the release of two members of Parliament, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, who were detained when the protests began.

The Swazi police have fatally shot over 29 demonstrators this year, seized personal belongings, and brutally interrogated journalists in an attempt to silence the pro-democratic movement, according to Swazi journalist Cebelihle Mbuyisa. The protesters also responded with violence, looting grocery stores and committing arson in the country’s two largest cities.

Tracey Dlamini, a 19-year-old university student in the capital Mbabane, described the gravity of the unrest to The Concordian, having witnessed these events unfold first-hand.

“I was really shocked, I’ve never seen anything like this in Swaziland in my entire life,” she explained. “The police were shooting the whole night, using tear gas, throwing protesters in vans like they were animals. I couldn’t even sleep hearing those gunshots. […] They shot even those who didn’t carry a weapon: small kids, mothers, fathers — everyone. All because we want one man to step down.”

On Oct. 21, the kingdom shut down internet access nationwide amid the new wave of protests, while also restricting movement under the current curfew from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. Mswati III continues to rule with an iron grip, attempting to monopolize Eswatini’s economy for the royalty.

“King Mswati is the law himself, he can’t be arrested. People are dying of hunger, some regions have no water, […] and if you start a business and it’s successful, then the king will take it from you. He sees you as competition if you try to become rich,” Dlamini added.

In 2019, the Swazi monarch purchased 19 luxury Rolls-Royce cars for his 15 wives, which amounted to $30 million. While Mswati III continues his lavish lifestyle, 63 per cent of Swazis live under the poverty line with an alarming 41 percent of the population being unemployed.

The king himself referred to the protests as “satanic,” saying they are turning the country backwards. Still, the manifestations show no signs of slowing down, notably among high school and university students, while the path towards democracy remains complex for Eswatini.

“We’re fighting for a democracy that has been deemed futile in so many African countries, like the neighbouring Lesotho,” said Georgia*, a Concordia student who grew up in Swaziland. “We need a system for ourselves which encompasses both the current system and a somewhat democratic one, and it’s intangible right now since emotions are high.”

The student added that Eswatini’s humanitarian crises have often been overlooked by the United Nations and the West, causing the landlocked country of 1.2 million people to deal with rampant poverty on its own.

“We need external forces to help, we need more awareness from the western world. They are the only ones who can actually bring democracy to reality in a country such as ours,” said Georgia.

Earlier in June, Canada expressed its commitment to strengthen democratic institutions throughout the world at the G7 Summit in Cornwall, England. However, the Trudeau government has yet to address Eswatini’s ongoing violence or provide support for the fellow Commonwealth member.

*To protect the subject’s identity, we are using their preferred pseudonym.

 

Graphic by Lily Cowper

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Concordia professor Nadia Chaudhri dies at 43, leaving a historic legacy

Amid her fight against ovarian cancer, the neuroscientist inspired hundreds of thousands on the internet

Dr. Nadia Chaudhri, an award-winning neuroscientist, Concordia professor, and beloved mother and wife, passed away on Oct. 5 due to ovarian cancer. While dealing with a terminal diagnosis during the pandemic, Chaudhri demonstrated nothing but courage and inspiration to an audience of over 150,000 on Twitter.

Born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, Chaudhri attended Franklin & Marshall College in the U.S. from the age of 17, where she was recognized for outstanding academic and extracurricular achievements. With a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh, Chaudhri has taught at Concordia University since 2010.

The professor had become a role model for the representation of women and minorities in neuroscience research — a cause for which she raised over $630,000 from thousands of donors, setting a record-breaking fundraiser at Concordia. Much of this support had emerged from Chaudhri’s popularity on social media, achieved by inspiring thousands with her personal stories about her fight against cancer, including the highs and lows of her difficult journey.

“Truth time! I can’t get out of bed without help anymore. But I’m gathering my strength for one more Shuffle down the palliative care floor tomorrow. I know I’ve got one more in me,” Chaudhri tweeted on Sept. 11 in an effort to raise funds for the Nadia Chaudhri Wingspan Award.

“I am not afraid,” Chaudhri added two days later, while spending her final weeks of life at the McGill University Health Centre.

For Dr. Alexandra Chisholm, now a postdoctoral fellow at New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Chaudhri played a key motivational role in the early stages of her career.

Chisholm shared with The Concordian that Chaudhri provided exemplary guidance and support when she began teaching the fundamentals of animal learning to undergraduate students in the Department of Psychology at Concordia. The neuroscientist also sent a warm congratulations email to Chisholm for her PhD thesis defense in experimental psychology — which Chaudhri could not attend as cancer complications had already begun.

“She was always the first to volunteer her help and expertise because she genuinely cared about her students’ development, wanted us to feel supported and wanted to push the limits of our critical thinking skills,” said Chisholm. “She helped me to build the confidence I now have today as a course instructor.”

Besides inspiring and funding her students for their success in neuroscience, Chaudhri also raised awareness about ovarian cancer through Twitter. She shared her early symptoms, which were not diagnosed correctly until six months later, in order to help her followers detect any potential complications of their own sooner rather than later. She highlighted how crucial it is to listen to one’s own body, while also stressing the need to fund cancer research as current chemotherapy treatments do not always manage to save lives.

“[Dr. Chaudhri] enriched us. Our entire community grieves her death and offers deeply heartfelt condolences to her son, Reza, and husband, Moni — whom she lovingly called her Sun and Moon — her family, friends, colleagues and the thousands of supporters to the Nadia Chaudhri Wingspan Award who embraced her cause,” said Concordia President and Vice-Chancellor Graham Carr for a Concordia article.

On Oct. 7, the University lowered its flags to half-mast to commemorate Chaudhri. Despite an early end to her inspiring journey, Chaudhri’s contributions to neuroscience and cancer awareness will not be forgotten by the Concordia community and her international supporters.

 

Photo courtesy of Nadia Chaudhri’s six-year-old son.

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A bilingual city-state? Mayoral candidate proposes major language changes in Montreal

Balarama Holness aims to recognize English as the city’s second official language

Mouvement Montréal party leader Balarama Holness will recognize the city as officially bilingual, if elected mayor in the municipal election on Nov. 6 and 7. This proposal has emerged as Quebec prepares for Bill 96 to strengthen the role of French across the province.

Holness’ plan would ensure that all services on the island of Montreal are provided in both French and English. This includes the city’s commercial and tourism sectors, as well as official documentation from the municipality.

“When people arrive in Montreal, whether they’re speaking English or French, we want them to feel comfortable and don’t want them to struggle,” said Matthew Kerr, Mouvement Montréal’s mayoral candidate for the CDN/NDG borough.

Kerr added that his borough would benefit economically from recognized bilingualism. He expects the locals to open more businesses as it would be more convenient to acquire permits and deal with paperwork, as well as cater to a community that is already bilingual.

Fifty-five per cent of Montreal’s population speaks both English and French according to the 2016 census, with nearly 850,000 residents knowing at least three languages. Despite the city’s linguistic diversity, however, French remains the most dominant language in the city with two-thirds of Montrealers calling it their mother tongue.

Still, many francophone and Quebec-oriented organizations perceive bilingualism as a threat to Montreal’s cultural identity, fearing that French may become vulnerable if English gains the same legal status.

“French is already lacking protection at the legislative level,” said Marie-Anne Alepin, president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal (SSJB), in an interview with The Concordian. “We see the numbers, French is declining — and [Montrealers] can see this with their own eyes. When they shop downtown, half the time they will be served solely in English,” Alepin added.

To further solidify the role of French in the province, the Quebec National Assembly presented Bill 96 in May, which is set to affirm on a constitutional level that French is the only official language of the province.

Expected to become law by the end of 2021, Bill 96 will now require businesses with 25 to 49 employees to operate in French — a rule that only applies to companies with over 50 employees as of now. Government agencies will be required to use French exclusively in both oral and written communication, which also includes newly-arrived immigrants after the first six months of their stay in Quebec.

The Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) is expected to gain more power, which already enforces the language law in Montreal’s food service and retail sectors. Earlier this year, two Montreal businesses were fined $1,500 for the lack of French on their websites, while a restaurant in Mile End received the same penalty in 2020 for having an English-only outdoor sign.

“But even the best law in the world won’t get around the fact that English is an appealing language, especially for the younger generation. […] With all the TV series and digital platforms, the interest for English is immense,” said Alepin.

The SSJB president specified that, while American culture is beautiful, it does not represent the culture of Quebec. As a solution to the linguistic challenge, Alepin proposes a mass investment in awareness campaigns as well as in French-language cultural projects and entertainment, which would make the language of Molière more attractive and competitive.

When it comes to investments, Holness argues that Montreal needs to gain a special city-state status as the city does not fully benefit from the revenue it generates.

“That $200 billion GDP has to come back to actually invest here in Montreal, whether it’s [in] infrastructure, small businesses and any other area of public life,” the candidate said in September after filing his application for the mayoral race.

With the annual municipal budget being just under $6.2 billion in 2021, Holness hopes to make use of taxation powers and create a more Montreal-oriented economy, following the example of Washington D.C. or Berlin.

In the municipal race, Holness currently stands in third place with 10 per cent of Montrealers supporting his candidacy, according to the most recent poll from Léger. The incumbent Valérie Plante of Projet Montréal is leading the race with 36 per cent of the vote, while Denis Coderre from Ensemble Montréal stays just one point behind.

 

Graphic by James Fay.

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Liberal Party wins the federal election: results unchanged since 2019

Meanwhile, Concordia University witnessed a rather smooth voting procedure on both campuses

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will continue to lead the country with a minority government, as the Liberal Party won 159 seats on Sept. 20, coming 11 short of a majority. The Conservative Party, led by Erin O’Toole, remains the official opposition with a total of 119 seats.

Costing Canadians an estimated $610 million, the 2021 federal election ended up more expensive than any other in Canadian history, surpassing the 2019 election costs by $100 million. Despite winning two additional seats, the Liberal Party was unable to reach a majority — an objective that pushed Trudeau to call a snap election just two years into his term.

“You are sending us back to work with a clear mandate to get Canada through this pandemic, and to the brighter days ahead, and my friends, that’s exactly what we are ready to do,” stated Trudeau in his victory speech at the end of the election night.

Going forward, the Trudeau government promises to develop a national childcare program, increase the supply of affordable housing, enforce vaccine mandates for federal workers, make clean water more accessible for Indigenous communities, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 per cent by 2030.

Although voter turnout dropped to 59 per cent this year, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of thousands still took part in the election on the Island of Montreal.

Home to the Loyola campus, the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Westmount borough reelected its Liberal MP Marc Garneau with 54 per cent of the vote. In the same riding, Concordia graduate Mathew Kaminski came in third place as a Conservative candidate with 14 per cent of the vote.

Voting at the Loyola Chapel has been an overall success with almost no queues on election day, according to the station’s central poll supervisor (CPS) Nevena Jeric. She told The Concordian there were many efforts to inform all students of the voting rules on campus, especially when it comes to their residential address.

“Many students received an email that, as long as they lived in the riding, they could vote on campus. […] We had maybe one or two people who were turned away, but they weren’t surprised either since they were on campus anyway and tried to vote with their friends just in case,” said Jeric.

The supervisor added that, although the younger generation did not have as strong of a showing as expected on election day, many students had likely cast their ballots during the four days of advanced polling. Nationwide, Canadians set a new record for early voting: nearly 5.8 million citizens selected their candidate before election day, representing an 18 per cent increase since 2019.

However, the voting situation was slightly different at the SGW campus downtown.

Charles*, serving as the supervisor of two polling stations in the EV and LB buildings, noted that there was an impressive engagement from young voters. Having supervised federal and provincial elections at McGill University in the past, he observed “a much stronger participation” from the student population at Concordia’s downtown polling stations compared to those at McGill.

During advanced polling, some students had to wait for as long as two hours to cast their ballots due to a high volume of participating citizens. Experiencing major delays was the most common complaint addressed by downtown voters.

To improve the voting process, Charles said that out-of-province students were allowed to leave their mail-in ballots in a designated box at the downtown station. This additional measure was implemented for the first time on campus, making the election process more convenient for those who recently moved to Montreal.

Polling stations closed at 9:30 p.m. on both campuses, and CBC News announced the projected winner of the federal election just an hour later.

Montrealers showed strong support for the Liberal Party, which won 16 out of 18 ridings on the island. One of them is the Dorval-Lachine-LaSalle borough, where Fabiola Ngamaleu Teumeni — a 20-year-old Concordia student representing the NDP — managed to place third with 13 per cent of the vote.

In Quebec, more voters supported the sovereignist Bloc Québécois (32.6 per cent) than the Liberal Party (31.9 per cent). With 33 seats in the House of Commons, the Bloc has achieved its best results since the 2008 federal election.

Nationwide, the Conservative Party won the popular vote by nearly 200,000 ballots. However, since Canada’s electoral system works on a first-past-the-post basis, the winning party was determined by the number of ridings — and therefore, seats — it has won.

This election’s outcome was almost identical to that of 2019, when the Liberal Party also earned over 155 seats and secured a minority government. As the voting took place in the middle of the fourth wave of COVID-19 and broke records for government expenses, many have questioned the urgency and timing of this snap election.

Nevertheless, Justin Trudeau now begins his third term as Canada’s 23rd prime minister.

*Charles requested his last name not be disclosed.

 

Graphic courtesy of Maddy Schmidt.

 

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IKEA furniture shortage creates challenges for returning students

Global shipping issues and high demand led to product scarcity in Montreal’s outlet

The world’s largest furniture retailer does not have enough supply to match the demand that comes with the start of the academic year, with many of its mattresses, sofas, beds, and kitchen items out of stock since mid-August.

For some Concordia students returning to Montreal, the move-in process has been more challenging than usual, as the supply issue continues as of the second week of university classes.

Luna Ferrari, a third-year communications student from Italy, has had to rely on her family as a temporary solution, due to missing a bed and a mattress for her downtown apartment.

“I am lucky that my uncle lives in Montreal, so I could stay at his house while the products I wanted were sold out. I didn’t want to spend 100 dollars on an inflatable mattress — which is something that my roommates had to do since they had no other choice,” said Ferrari.

When the student went to IKEA in person one week after an unsuccessful online order, she ended up buying just a kitchen table and a rug, as her other preferred items were still unavailable.

IKEA Canada told The Concordian that its low stock availability is the result of its disrupted supply chain due to COVID-19. Since 2020, the transportation of goods by sea has been unreliable as port closures and cargo ship standstills significantly delayed the delivery process.

“In addition, at IKEA, we are seeing higher customer demand as more people are spending increased time at home. […] We want to thank our customers for their patience and understanding as we work with suppliers to restock their favourite IKEA products,” stated Lisa Huie, the public relations leader of IKEA Canada.

The company has bought its own shipping containers and is chartering additional vessels in an effort to reduce delivery times and meet the historically high demand. IKEA also began transporting its products by transcontinental rail from China, all the way to Europe, to avoid a production crisis.

Montreal is not the only region experiencing such shortages: up to 10 per cent of all furniture items were also out of stock in Ireland and the U.K. as of Sept. 9. Despite the company’s efforts to resolve the global issue, university students continue to feel the impact.

Ferrari explained that, “The problem is not the lack of options in general, but the lack of affordable options. As students, we all have similar budgets, so we all want to buy the same products that would look nice for our apartments while also not being very expensive. It was frustrating to visit a store that I personally like and then leave almost empty-handed.”

The student decided to purchase a bed via Amazon for the first time, which was delivered to her doorstep in just three days. While feeling relieved about finally having a place to sleep in her new home, Ferrari said that balancing studies with furniture shopping has been “nothing but a stressful experience.”

 

Photo by Catherine Reynolds.

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Concordia student trapped in Afghanistan, forced to delay studies

Due to the Taliban takeover in August, one Afghan student is unable to leave the country

Arzou*, a 19-year-old Afghan student, was set to begin her first year at Concordia this fall studying political science and economics. However, following the Taliban’s military invasion of Kabul, the nation’s capital, Arzou could not flee Afghanistan and had to set her university education aside.

Since May 2021, the terrorist group has made military advancements in over 200 districts of Afghanistan and took full control of Kabul on Aug. 15. This conquest put an end to the 20-year war between the Taliban and the United States, as the former President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, escaped the country and the U.S.-backed government collapsed.

The Kabul airport became the last source of hope for both Afghan citizens and foreign nationals, who desperately tried to escape the country before the airport was shut down. In an exclusive interview with The Concordian, Arzou shared her memories of the day she will never forget.

“Everyone was rushing to the airport, including those without a passport or a visa. The traffic was incredibly bad. I saw with my own eyes how the Taliban was celebrating on the streets and preventing civilians from reaching the airport. […] They were being very violent towards everyone, even the women and children.”

On Aug. 27, over 100 civilians and U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing outside the airport, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility. Earlier that month, locals were also seen holding onto a U.S. Air Force plane during take-off as panic erupted on the runway.

As of now, there are no passenger flights to the outside world from the Kabul airport, making it a dead end for Afghans who are trying to escape. Due to the Taliban’s iron grip on the airstrip, only domestic and humanitarian aid flights are currently permitted.

“It was the reason that I couldn’t attend Concordia this fall, sadly. I was very excited to start a new chapter of my life,” said Arzou.

The student explained that her rights are at serious risk in Afghanistan, as the Taliban announced it would only grant women rights “within the limits of Islam,” based on the group’s own interpretation of Islamic law.

At Kabul University, female students were told they are no longer allowed to leave their residence without a male guardian. Meanwhile, women’s beauty salons in the capital have been vandalized with spray paint, in order to cover the models’ faces on storefronts.

“Women are forced to wear the chadari, which covers the woman’s entire body from head to toe with a slight opening in the eye region — something I would call a prison cell,” said Arzou.

She added, “I don’t want my many years of education to go to waste. I don’t even want to believe that the Taliban had taken control of my homeland — I remember all the stories from my parents who went through similar terror in Kabul 20 years ago.”

On Sept. 7, one week after the last American troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Taliban announced its new government — led by Mohammad Hasan Akhund, a former influential figure in the Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001.

The new, all-male government has already disbanded the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and instead founded the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice to enforce Islamic law. These actions have crossed the “fundamental red line” outlined by the UN Human Rights Council at the Geneva emergency meeting:

“[This line] will be the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls, and respect for their rights to liberty, freedom of movement, education, self-expression and employment, guided by international human rights norms,” stated UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Aug. 24.

The current state of Afghanistan has left Arzou angry not only at the Taliban regime, but also at the United States for its past actions. For instance, in an effort to negotiate peace talks between the former Afghan government and the Taliban, the Trump administration agreed to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in 2020.

“[This controversial decision] helped the Taliban start this extreme violence. The U.S. literally exploited our land and used our natural resources, and now left the country in this state,” Arzou exclaimed.

Nevertheless, Afghan women are actively protesting against the Taliban regime on the streets of Kabul, in pursuit of freedom, equality, and fair representation in the government. Despite the Taliban’s use of metal batons and whips against the demonstrators, such protests show no signs of slowing down.

“They aren’t the same women they were 20 years ago,” Arzou explained, “and we just won’t give up on our goals. I am hopeful that one day, I’ll also contribute to rebuilding my country.”

If circumstances allow, Arzou hopes to begin her studies at Concordia University in the winter semester of 2022.

*to protect the subject’s identity, we are using her preferred pseudonym.

 

Graphic by Madeline Schmidt.

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Interview with Concordia President Graham Carr: Fall 2021

On the return to in-person classes amid COVID-19, vaccination policy, and more.

President and vice-chancellor of Concordia University, Graham Carr, spoke with The Concordian about the gradual return of in-person instruction, the construction of a new building for the Concordia Student Union (CSU), and the strategy for the university’s success on a global scale.

TC:  With the fall semester just a week away, how ready is Concordia for a gradual return to in-person classes?

GC: I think we’re pretty ready for a gradual return to in-person classes. I think a lot of people in our community are also really looking forward to coming back.

TC: In this hybrid semester, how will the university provide students with the best learning experience while also mitigating the risk of COVID-19?

GC: Those are… the two most important goals for this semester. We want to do our utmost to make sure that students have as great of an experience as possible academically, whether they’re here in person, studying remotely, or doing a mix of in-person and online. And of course, as we have been doing over the last 18 months, we’re very focused on the health and safety of the community.

The deans, led by the Provost, over the course of the summer really took their time to think through the schedule that they wanted to offer students for fall. That meant thinking through which courses they felt could productively be delivered online that may not have been delivered online before, and which courses were going to offer an important in-person component or a hybrid component as well.

One of the things that motivated the decisions in all of the faculties was making sure that there were a significant number of online courses targeted to students who we knew might have difficulties being in Montreal in person, particularly international students. So we did a mapping of which courses had high international student enrollment and were compulsory for programs, and have tried to make sure that we have online components there.

TC: If an international student’s arrival is delayed by the 14-day quarantine (or other issues related to vaccination or travel) — and they have in-person courses — would Concordia be able to accommodate them in any way?

GC: Yes. We’ve been messaging with international students directly for months now, because it’s been a challenging environment for international student travel generally. And the instructions that we were getting from federal and provincial authorities were that students should be planning … to start arriving in Canada in mid/late August, and we know that a number of international students are already arriving.

But others, for the reasons you described, won’t be able to be here at the beginning of the semester. So what we have done is we’ve set a deadline for Nov. 8, which is the add/drop date, and have given students that leeway to arrive in Montreal — which is important for the visa processing that they all need to go through as well. So we’re trying to be as flexible as possible and, in the meantime, provide those students … with a way to begin their semester in an online environment.

TC: Concordia has encouraged both international and local students to get vaccinated as soon as possible. But some Canadian institutions such as the University of Ottawa and Carleton University have gone even further, making vaccination mandatory for all students and staff to continue studying or working on campus. Is Concordia considering using the same approach anytime soon?

GC:  In Quebec, the government has deemed higher education to be an essential service. And we are not … allowed to deny essential services to individuals on medical grounds. … To be quite honest, I think we are, like other universities in the province, reluctant to demand mandatory vaccines when it’s not clear how we would implement that. It’s not clear how we would monitor that, particularly on university campuses, which have many, many, many points of entry.

So instead, what we will be doing is taking advantage of something that’s unique in Quebec, which is the vaccine passport. What we are looking at is how we can apply the vaccine passports for non-essential activities that happen on the campus: things like going to the gym for recreational purposes, going to Reggies, going to cafeteria and other food places, or attending cinema events that are not academic. If we can implement those measures on campus, our feeling is that will further encourage and incentivize unvaccinated people (whether they’re faculty, staff or students) to get vaccinated.

We will have vaccination sites on both campuses, which we’re mounting in collaboration with public health and the city of Montreal, and we’ll have mobile vaccination units as well. Now there’s also a kiosk at the Trudeau Airport which allows international students … to get vaccinated once they arrive, if they are not fully vaccinated at that point.

So I think when you put together the ensemble of those measures, over the already-high vaccination rate that students in Quebec have achieved*, I feel that there’s quite a good range of measures that are in place … to help us ensure a safe experience for everyone.

* In Quebec, over 82 per cent of university and CEGEP students are either fully vaccinated or have booked their second dose appointment, thus exceeding the provincial government’s original target of 75 per cent.

TC: If Santé Québec ends the provincial mask mandate later this fall, which would apply to university classrooms as well, will Concordia follow suit and make masks optional on campus then?

GC: Well, I’m not going to forecast what may or may not happen. Obviously, that would be a major decision on the part of Santé Québec. You may remember that it was McGill and Concordia that insisted upon mandatory masking (including in classes) with procedural masks, not face coverings. And subsequently, that became policy for the higher education sector as a whole, as we see, as of [Aug. 24] for certain elementary and secondary school districts as well. The public health situation has been evolving.

If we’ve learned one thing over the course of the last 17 months or so, it’s the challenge of predicting where the next bend in the COVID-19 road will occur. And I think our track record has been pretty good in terms of adapting to those changes in ways that maintain the health and safety of our community. Obviously, we work very closely with public health authorities, and we would certainly cross that bridge when we get to it — I think is the best answer at this point.

TC: Earlier in March, the CSU held a referendum on a variety of issues, including the construction of a new building for the CSU, and nearly 85 per cent of all students who participated voted in favour of the project. With the CSU saying that it will provide a new “space for events, social gatherings and new services,” does the Concordia administration support this project? And if so, how would you collaborate with the CSU to make this plan a reality?

GC: In 2019-20, the then-head of the Concordia Student Union began meeting with me and more importantly with Roger Côté, who was the vice president of services at that time, to discuss exactly how we would collaborate on creating the student union building.

Those conversations obviously got interrupted because of COVID. There was a change in the CSU with the elections for the 2020-21 team, but conversation resumed late in the 2021 mandate — probably around the time when the referendum was taken — between the CSU and our facilities management people, led by Michael Di Grappa, who is now the vice president for services and sustainability. So the university has been very open to that.

There’s been talk at Concordia for decades, frankly, about having a Concordia Student Union building on the downtown campus. Equally importantly, we want to make sure that in the coming years, we improve student services on the Loyola campus as well. I know that’s something that the current CSU leadership is also interested in. There’s a report which is due on the animation and future of the Loyola campus, which had student representation over the last year and a half. I’m looking forward to seeing that report. So for us, how we can, as a university, improve student services, including places for students is important, but not just on the downtown campus — on both campuses.

TC: Last year, Concordia was ranked first in Canada of all universities under 50 years old. Going forward, what will be your strategy to not only maintain Concordia’s reputation among Canadian universities, but also to increase its prestige on an international level?

GC: That’s an important priority for us, because we know that one of the things which is hugely motivating for students in selecting a university are the rankings.

I would say that looking forward, … one of the areas where we’re really focusing is on sustainability, and particularly the work that we’re doing to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So there is the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which measure how universities are performing against the 17 UN SDGs. By performance, they’re measuring not only their academic and research activity, but also what’s called the stewardship of the goals: how the institution advances the goals through its own operational practices, its external partnerships, etc.

And earlier this spring, … Concordia was ranked 62nd in the world, for the work that we’re doing on advancing the SDGs. And in three categories, we were actually ranked in the top 25 in the world; in one of those categories, which was reducing inequalities, we were ranked number one in Canada.

This will not only improve the impact that Concordia is making as a university for the community and society at large, but it will bring recognition internationally for us. … We announced in the spring that we wanted to undertake a map of voluntary university review, to map how we are performing against each of the UN sustainable development goals — that process has begun. And I think it’s something that’s very exciting, very mobilizing for the community as a whole, and has a great opportunity to position Concordia as a leader internationally.

TC: Is there anything you would like to say personally to all Concordia students ahead of the new academic year?

GC: I want to wish everybody good luck! I have to say it will be nice to see more people on campus in the fall.

I recognize fully that there’s a spectrum of opinions, attitudes and concerns about the return to campus, and I appreciate that some students and some faculty, staff and administrators have misgivings about returning because of the public health situation. But I think we have to be feeling so much better than we felt a year ago at this time.

There’s still uncertainty, but the situation 12 months later is that we can offer a rich mix of in-person and online activities. Our online courses continue to improve because of what we’ve learned over the course of the last 17 months. And more importantly, we’re able to bring society to reopen in part because of the success of the vaccination program, which was not the case a year ago.

I fully expect that everybody coming on the campus should be vaccinated at this point, unless they have a valid medical or religious reason not to be. And if there are students, faculty or staff who still are not fully vaccinated, my message to them is:

Please, get fully vaccinated. Not only for your sake, above all, but also for the health and safety of the community as a whole.

 

Photo courtesy of Concordia University

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Canada’s COVID border measures pose challenges for international students

Despite being vaccinated, some returning students will have to self-isolate for 14 days upon entering the country.

Since July 5, fully vaccinated international students have been exempt from a mandatory two-week quarantine following their arrival, along with Canadian citizens and permanent residents. However, this rule only applies to travellers whose vaccine is approved by the Canadian government.

Implementing the proof-of-vaccination policy has allowed Canada to ease its border restrictions just in time for the fall semester. Still, only four vaccines are currently accepted by the border security agents: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca/COVISHIELD, and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson).

Ahmed Kamel, a computer engineering student at Concordia University, will be required to self-quarantine for two weeks upon his arrival from Cairo, Egypt — while being fully immunized with the Sinopharm vaccine.

“Here in Egypt I wasn’t given a choice on which vaccine I wanted to take, so it was either the Sinopharm vaccine or nothing,” said Kamel. “Rich countries like Canada and the States acquired Pfizer vaccines long before our region did, so they’re simply unavailable here.”

The Sinopharm vaccine is manufactured in China and has an efficacy of 79 per cent against symptomatic infection two weeks after the second dose. It became the first vaccine developed by a non-Western country to be approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) for emergency use.

The Canada-approved AstraZeneca had also been administered in Egypt, but its scarce supply of four million doses was enough to fully immunize just two per cent of Egyptians, a nation of 102 million people.

“Travellers like me with Sinopharm are definitely more protected from the virus than non-vaccinated people, so it’s unfair that we’re all placed in one group and face the same restrictions at the border,” Kamel added.

In addition to Canada, the Sinopharm vaccine is considered invalid by an overwhelming majority of European Union countries, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As each country implements its own vaccine-approval criteria, the WHO has issued a joint statement with COVAX on the inequalities such practices create, and how this causes further economic damages for developing countries.

“Any measure that only allows people protected by a subset of WHO-approved vaccines to benefit from the re-opening of travel into and with that region would effectively create a two-tier system, further widening the global vaccine divide and exacerbating the inequities we have already seen in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines,” the organization stated on July 1. 

Although Health Canada has confirmed that officials continue to monitor vaccine-related data from the WHO, there are no current plans to validate the Sinopharm vaccine in the country.

As university classes resume on Sept. 7, the two-week quarantine would overlap with the month of August, causing Kamel to pay for one extra month of rent to have a valid lease agreement for the border agents. With the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment reaching $1,350 in Montreal, finding affordable housing was an “enormous challenge on its own” for the student.

Searching for a residence remotely has also been an issue for Juanes Lucuara, a civil engineering student from Colombia. The mandatory 14-day quarantine discouraged his family from visiting Montreal earlier this month, thus cancelling all in-person apartment viewings.

“We would have to spend over $2,000 on our self-isolation alone, so looking for apartments online was our only option. I could barely see what my future home looks like from a tiny screen with an unstable Zoom connection,” Lucuara explained. “Those virtual tours felt like playing a blind-guessing game.”

In order to help returning students find a place to stay, the Off-Campus Housing and Job Resource Centre (HOJO), provided by the Concordia Student Union (CSU), is currently hosting a variety of information sessions to familiarize students with the rental process. 

On Aug. 5, HOJO will hold an online seminar called “All about the Quebec lease” from 12 to 1 p.m., followed by the “All about rental applications” session taking place from 5 to 6 p.m.

These online events are meant to inform students of their obligations, acceptance criteria, and the paperwork they need to successfully rent an apartment in Montreal.

If a student is unable to settle in Montreal before Sept. 7 due to the current travel restrictions, they may begin the fall semester remotely, provided that they make every effort to arrive as soon as possible.

While vaccination increases one’s chances of exemption from the 14-day quarantine, the Concordia administration also encourages its local students to get immunized before the fall. 

Earlier in June, Concordia’s President and Vice-Chancellor Graham Carr stated that “vaccination is the best way to ensure a safe return to campus”.

Graphic by Taylor Reddam

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Vaccine passports: an inevitable measure in a post-COVID reality?

As Canada ramps up its vaccination efforts across provinces, the government tries to determine the best options for a gradual return to normalcy

The United States and the European Union have started outlining what fully vaccinated people can and cannot do, especially when it comes to international travel. While vaccinated Canadians are not granted special freedoms thus far, the Trudeau government is closely monitoring the idea of “vaccine passports.”

The concept of an immunization passport has already been in use well before the COVID-19 pandemic. In Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, many nations require international travellers to show proof of vaccination, particularly against yellow fever, polio, or meningitis.

This time, however, vaccine passports might also be required for daily life activities even within Canada.

Israel, currently the most vaccinated country in the world against COVID-19, has already defined privileges for vaccine passport holders. Those who present a green pass on their smartphone are allowed to dine in restaurants and exercise in gyms, as well as attend mass sporting events.

“I really wanted to get the vaccine to finally be able to enjoy the country,” said Ora Bar, a Concordia student currently living in Tel Aviv. She added, “If you want to go to a restaurant and eat indoors, you need to have the pass. Without it, I couldn’t even enter to go to the restroom.”

Officials in the United Kingdom are also developing COVID-19 passports, which would show that a person has received either the vaccine or a recent negative COVID test, or has gained partial immunity after contracting the virus in the last six months. Later this April, such proof may be required to safely attend soccer stadiums, concert venues, and nightclubs.

However, in the U.S., immunization passports have become a controversial topic fuelling political and ethical debates. Currently, 47 per cent of Americans are opposed to government-sponsored COVID passports, while a violation of privacy and freedom has been the most common concern raised by the general public.

On April 2, vaccine passports were banned in Florida as Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order that prohibited all businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from their customers. A few days later, he was joined by Texas Governor Greg Abbott who also outlawed such measures in his state.

“Government should not require any Texan to show proof of vaccination and reveal private health information just to go about their daily lives … Don’t tread on our personal freedoms,” stated Abbott on Twitter.

Meanwhile, New York became the first U.S. state to implement a digital vaccine passport. If one were to attend a baseball game, a play or a wedding reception, they would be required to show their vaccination papers. Now, New Yorkers can simply present a QR code via Excelsior Pass, an IBM-powered application available on both Apple and Android for free.

As for Canada, it is still too early to be thinking about relaxed COVID-related restrictions even for vaccinated Canadians, according to Justin Trudeau. The prime minister has made it clear that “we’re still in the middle of a very serious third wave.”

The Trudeau government is primarily focusing on mass vaccination instead of the freedoms that fully vaccinated Canadians can enjoy. So far, over 770,000 Canadians have received both doses of a COVID vaccine, making up just two per cent of the population.

As of April 9, Canada’s vaccination levels are far below those of Israel, the UK, and the U.S. — where 61,47, and 33 per cent of the population has received at least one dose, respectively. This category stands at 20 per cent in Quebec (and just over 17 per cent nationwide), suggesting it may be too soon to focus on the post-pandemic life.

Nevertheless, Health Minister Patty Hajdu confirmed that Canada has actively discussed the concept of vaccine passports with fellow G7 countries, focusing on international travel in particular.

“The G7 partners agreed that there needs to be some consistency and some collaboration among the countries, so we have some kind of system that would be recognizable, no matter where a person was travelling,” Hajdu explained last week.

When it comes to using vaccine passports domestically for everyday activities, Trudeau has so far refrained from officially implementing such a system, saying it raises questions of equity. Since the majority of Canada’s population is currently ineligible to get the COVID vaccine, the government is only monitoring the passport’s efficiency worldwide.

“These are things that we have to take into account so that yes, we’re looking to try and encourage everyone to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, but we’re not discriminating and bringing in unfairness in the process at the same time,” stated Trudeau in March.

While COVID-19 vaccines remain optional in Canada, the country’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam also strongly encourages Canadians to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.

Once a larger share of the population receives both doses of the vaccine, Canadians can expect to have more specific guidelines for those who are vaccinated, along with a plan for a gradual return to ordinary life in Canada.

 

Graphic by Taylor Reddam

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