Jai alai – The world’s fastest sport

Surprisingly, the quickest game on earth originates from a country that enjoys a national midday nap.

Jai alai, the native word for “merry festival” in Basque, was created over 300 years ago in the north of Spain, deriving from the much older sport of Basque pelota which was played since the 13th century, though its roots can be traced back to ancient Greece. 

In Basque pelota, there are two teams of two players each, a goatskin ball three-fourths the size of a baseball and harder than a golf ball called the “pilota,” a front facing wall called a frontoi, more commonly known by its French name “fronton.”

With the same idea as squash, the objective of this wall-game is to return the ball off of the fronton without slowing or stopping the pace of play, and without allowing it to bounce off the floor more than once. The game can be played using a plethora of equipment to play the ball, such as a variety of shapes of pallet, a bat or even just a glove. 

The rules of jai alai are almost identical. However, this derivation of Basque pelota has an alias, signifying its difference from its predecessor: Zesta punta, or “cesta punta” in Spanish, which translates to “basket tip.” In jai alai, each player is donned with a banana-shaped basket, two feet in length, inserted over the hand in such a way that it is essentially an extension of the arm. 

Players use the basket to catch the ball, and fling the ball back towards the fronton at tremendous speeds. Zesta punta held the highest recorded ball speed in the Guiness Book of World Records at 302 kph (188 mph), though the ball more commonly travels at 240 kph (150 mph).

Due to the ball’s high velocity, the court is more spacious to give players more time to react. Instead of 38 metres in length, jai alai courts measure 54 metres. Players must also wear a helmet.

Along with Basque pelota, jai alai had grown at a global level since the 19th century, reaching America and the Philippines. The two locally popularized it due to their immense attraction of jai alai as a paramutual betting game—a substitute for horse or greyhound racing. 

In America, the states of Florida and Connecticut were especially keen on the gambling aspect of the sport. One is still operated at the Magic City Casino near Miami. There used to be 14 frontons in the United States. Only four are left, all in Florida. The Casino at Dania Beach is hosting its second annual invitational tournament on Dec. 1. 

Basque pelota, however, remains a much more popular game. In fact, it was played as an Olympic sport in the 1900 games. It has been played at the Pan American games since 1995, as it is played more seriously on this side of the world in Latin American countries, though it is played all over Europe as well. 

More locally, Basque pelote’s Quebec community is concentrated in Trois-Pistoles, which has an immensely popular fronton. The pelote fever has been rampant in that town since the Canadian government erected a pelote park in 1996, the Parc de l’aventure Basque en Amérique, or PABA. Hopefully, we’ll be fortunate enough to have easier access to this beautiful cultural past-time in the not-too-distant future.


The Heart of Auschwitz: The beauty of human devotion

The story of a heart-shaped birthday card that’s become an eternal symbol of resilience among Jewish women Holocaust survivors

At eight years old, Sandy Fainer played pretend as Kathy Gregory, one of her favourite characters from the 1950s American sitcom, Leave it to Beaver. One day, after watching an episode involving Kathy’s suspicions of being adopted, Sandy snooped around her house for clues to crack a similar “mystery,” as she noticed having no photographs of her with extended family. Little did she know, she would discover a piece of history hidden in her mother’s underwear drawer — and it wasn’t adoption papers.

In the palm of her hands was a heart-shaped birthday card that her mother, Fania Fainer, received for her 20th birthday on Dec. 12, 1944, when she was imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau, working at the Union Werke munitions factory.

The birthday card, known as The Heart of Auschwitz, has been displayed at the Montreal Holocaust Museum since 1988. A facsimile has also made its way to The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

The artifact’s story has been featured in various forms of media around the world: the documentary The Heart of Auschwitz by Carl Leblanc, and the award-winning novel Paper Hearts, written by Meg Wiviott. 

This was no ordinary gift.

“It was the only material object that she survived [the Holocaust] with,” said Sandy. “She didn’t think it was of any interest to anybody else. But to her, it was very precious.… She kept it with her most intimate things.”

As a child, Sandy remembered being admonished for fooling around with it. “Just get your little hands off that, it’s not a toy!” she recalled her mother exclaiming. 

But for Sandy, the heart-shaped birthday card’s preservation is the most astonishing part of its journey — a “miracle,” as she put it. It’s a representation of women Holocaust victims’ solidarity and her mother’s reminder of hopefulness when she felt anguished. 

Before World War II, Fania was living in Białystok, Poland. On Sept. 1, 1939, her life changed drastically, as the Nazi regime occupied her town. 

She became a target for her ethnic identity, being labeled as the “Jew” with a yellow star badge; a dehumanizing Nazi tactic used to segregate, stigmatize, and potentially deport the Jewish population of Europe to death camps. 

One day, Fania went out in public without wearing her badge and was identified by a boy. She was  arrested by a group of German soldiers and stripped from her family for life. 

She was initially sent to the Stutthof forced labor camp, but was later deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she worked in the Union Werke munitions factory.

During her time at the factory, she befriended other young women workers, such as Zlatka Pitluk.

According to the Montreal Holocaust Museum, Pitluk was born in Pruzhany, Poland in 1924. In January of 1943, the 19 year old found herself imprisoned in Auschwitz, and later transferred to work in the munitions factory. 

When Fania’s birthday came around, Pitluk planned to make her a card and a cake out of material and food found in the factory, along with the help of 19 other women workers.

The women stole materials at night for Pitluk and kept it protected— a life-threatening act of resistance they took to honour Fania’s special day, despite many not even knowing her.

The card was signed with various hopeful wishes in Polish, Hebrew, German and French.

“Freedom, freedom, freedom, wishing on the day of your birthday,” is one of many heartwarming messages written on the card and was signed by a girl named Mania.

“Zlatka risked her life to make this tiny, amazing object. Everything from the paper to the fabric, to the stitching, to the bread that she didn’t eat so she can mix it with water to make glue to stick it together …all of that was illegal,” said Sarah Fogg, a staff member at the Montreal Holocaust Museum. 

She stole orange rope to embroider the letter ‘F’ for Fania and cut a piece of her purple blouse that she wore illegally under her uniform, to fabricate the covers of the booklet.

This was yet another heroic sacrifice Pitluk made.

One day, during an inspection at the factory, she was caught and confronted for wearing the blouse under her uniform by a kapo, a woman prostitute monitoring the work line.

The teen was brutally beaten nearly to death and fell unconscious. She was woken up after being drenched with a pail of water by the prisoner functionary. 

Fogg said that Pitluk wore the purple blouse due to her allergy to the uniform’s fabric.

When Pitluk walked back to the factory line gasping for air, the women workers were crying in devastation after almost losing their dearest friend. 

“I don’t know where I got the courage because I risked my life with every single word,” said Pitluk, sobbing hysterically recalling this horrifying memory in her testimony with the Montreal Holocaust Museum in 1998. 

Pitluk’s sacrificial efforts were never forgotten and acted as a symbol of hope for Fania.

Sandy said her mother kept the booklet safely hidden for months at the camp, until she was liberated.

During a Death March, “she remembers that she kept it under her arm, in her armpit,” said Sandy.

“There were hundreds of miles and war transports and everything but, she absolutely kept it… that to me, is the most extraordinary part of the story.”

The Heart of Auschwitz has been viewed by thousands of visitors and holds a special place at the museum. Many have shared their admiration for the way it speaks to the human spirit.

“It was her friend’s birthday and she wanted to give her a gift. And I think that’s so powerful, when you think about the suffering and the persecution and the death and loss they were experiencing. Her gesture is one of such solidarity in humanity. I mean, there’s something so simple in that,” said Fogg.

Fogg referred to the countless unique stories that are attached to the card; the women who signed it, who protected it, and who made it. “This object is larger than all of us,” she added.

“You can’t take the human being out of that, you know? I mean, you can kill them physically but, spiritually, it’s harder,” said Sandy. 

And Sandy can’t thank her inner Kathy Gregory enough. 

Silvia Vasquez-Lavado climbs the Seven Summits to escape past trauma

Victim of childhood sexual assault makes history by becoming the first openly gay and Peruvian woman to have climbed the Seven Summits

CW: This article discusses sexual abuse 


When life brings on its challenges, most people tend to relax or find their calm through common activities. For 46-year-old Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, she receives her sense of calm through mountain climbing. She has already achieved such incredible accomplishments, but her drive to summit mountains was propelled by heartbreak and pain.

The Peruvian native grew up in Lima during the reign of the Peruvian terrorist organization The Shining Path. At five-years-old, she experienced trauma that no child should ever have to endure; she was a victim of childhood sexual abuse by someone who was working in her family’s home. When Vasquez-Lavado became a little older, she had to confront her past traumas to move forward with her future, and came forward about her sexual abuse to her mother. Her mother was frightened for her daughter and didn’t want her to stay in Peru any longer, so she encouraged Vasquez-Lavado to leave Peru and move to the United States. It was not long after that a young and hopeful Vasquez-Lavado went to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship, where she attended Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

Although she tried leaving her past behind, her trauma followed wherever she went and, in her twenties, Vasquez-Lavado struggled with depression. She realized that she had to confront her past instead of trying to forget about it. Therefore, in October 2005, Vasquez-Lavado returned to Peru for the first time since she had left, and attended a meditation retreat.

She recalled how, during this retreat, she had a vision of her adult self reconnecting to her inner child, as both versions of herself walked through a valley surrounded by mountains.

“I need to find a way to free myself of this huge pain that has paralyzed me for so long, and the only way I know how to do so is to walk to the tallest mountain in the whole world,” she recalled saying to herself as her epiphany came to her. “Might as well walk up to the base of Mount Everest,” she recalled saying to herself with a chuckle.

With a goal set in mind, she did just that. Vasquez-Lavado had seven days off of work and she devoted those seven days to climbing to the base camp of Mount Everest. The climb has been estimated to take people two weeks; however, Vasquez-Lavado was able to accomplish it in only four days.

“When I first [saw] Mount Everest, I recall feeling a sense of security and safety that I had never really felt ever in my life,” she said. “For someone who has ever experienced trauma like I had, personally I felt detached from my own body and it got to the point where I barely even recognized myself. So, being on top of these mountains, it’s an unexplainable, breathtaking experience that truly rekindled the spark that I needed in my life.” It was this first trekking experience that completely changed her perspective on life and made her fall in love with mountain climbing.

The following year, in December 2006, Vasquez-Lavado faced another great loss as her partner Lori had passed away. She didn’t want to let the pain and heartbreak of losing her partner shatter her life like her past traumas had.

Therefore, she made a promise to herself and Lori to climb each of the Seven Summits in honour of her partner. Keeping her promise, that year she climbed Kilimanjaro, and the next year she climbed Mount Elbrus. At the top of every peak, she left a picture of Lori.

Remembering her experience, with a smile on her face, she said, “I don’t know why exactly I felt the way I felt walking through these incredible mountains that are a true gift of nature, but for some reason I felt safe, seen, and like someone was holding me for the first time ever in my life.”

She regained her passion for trekking and even got remarried before her life took a turn yet again. In April 2013, Vasquez-Lavado lost her mother to cancer, and three months later her and her partner filed for divorce. Vasquez-Lavado was experiencing grief, heartbreak, and pain all at the same time, and the only way she knew how to keep going and eventually heal was to keep her promise and finish climbing the Seven Summits. She followed up on her promise, and that year she settled on summiting Aconcagua in Argentina.

On top of being a mountaineer, Vasquez-Lavado is also a philanthropist. In 2014, she founded Courageous Girls, which is based in California and aims to help young women who are survivors of sexual violence by bringing them along on adventurous travels. With her non-profit group, she is dedicated to helping victims find their peace and closure through mountain climbing.

“I wanted to empower these incredible women who are survivors by helping them find their inner strength,” she said about why she founded Courageous Girls.

In November 2015, she and a group of girls from Nepal who had all been trafficked in India, hiked to the base of Mount Everest.

“With this experience I hope to provide them with, I want them to be able to accomplish something on their own that no one else is going to take it away from them,” Vasquez-Lavado said of these women’s journeys.

After completing six of the Seven Summits, Vasquez-Lavado still had one more climb to do to keep her promise to Lori: reaching the top of Denali, which she had previously attempted to summit twice. As she was about to go back to Alaska to try to make her third attempt at climbing the mountain, she found herself in a cycling accident. While in the hospital, her doctors had discovered that she had a small tumor at the base of her brain stem, and she was immediately brought into emergency surgery. The doctors gave her two years before she would be fully recovered and regain her physical strength.

However, Vasquez-Lavado was more determined than ever to regain her strength so that she could get back to the one activity that brings her the most fulfillment of all: climbing. She was able to regain her strength back in half the time the doctors told her, and, with her strength back, she headed for Denali and completed her summit, all while enduring a storm. In the summer of 2018, she officially completed her promise, leaving a picture of herself, her mom, and Lori at the top of the mountain.

“I felt I gave everything to the mountain,” she said. “I emptied myself out.”

Vasquez-Lavado’s story is incredible and inspiring, so much so that it was recently announced that her life will be turned into a biopic titled In the Shadow of the Mountain. Actress, Selena Gomez will star and play Vasquez-Lavado,  and the movie will be produced and directed by Oscar winner Donna Gigliotti. The movie is set to be released in 2022.


Feature graphic by Chloë Lalonde @ihooqstudio

Action over anxiety: Tippi Thole’s journey to a tiny trash lifestyle

How one Montrealer is rethinking her footprint

Like a lot of people, Tippi Thole starts her day with a cup of coffee. She uses an espresso machine, since it doesn’t require paper filters or plastic pods that will end up in the trash later. The only waste generated by Thole’s daily java fix are coffee grounds, which she tosses into the compost bin.

After coffee, Thole prepares breakfast with her 11-year-old son. In order to cut out wasteful packaging, many of the ingredients she cooks with are packaged in compostable material, like cardboard, or purchased in bulk and transported home inside glass jars. If an item isn’t available in sustainable packaging — like tortillas, for example, which are usually sold in sealed plastic bags — she makes it from scratch instead.

Waste is something Thole spends a lot of time thinking about. On her website,, she documents her efforts to lead a “low-waste” lifestyle; by scaling back her consumer habits, giving items a second life, and avoiding wasteful materials like plastic, Thole aims to minimize the amount of trash she creates as much as possible. Aptly titled, the website encourages visitors to “reconfigure” their waste sorting system so that the largest bins are dedicated to recycling and compost, and the smallest bin is dedicated to trash.

I feel like all of us can reduce [our] trash,” said Thole. “It’s something that all of us can do, it’s very attainable.”

Currently based in Montreal, Thole grew up in Missouri in the United States. When she’s not working on, she splits her time between her job as a graphic designer and her recently-acquired role as a teacher to her son, who is homeschooled as a result of the pandemic. Thole’s son is an enthusiastic participant in low-waste living, scribbling math equations on scrap pieces of paper and drawing with coloured pencils instead of plastic-encased markers.

The Concordian sat down for an interview with Thole back in February. Having been featured in publications like The Washington Post, Business Insider, and the CBC, she’s no stranger to media attention. Throughout the interview, she’s relaxed and upbeat, pausing only to take sips of her coffee, courtesy of her aforementioned espresso machine. Although the subject of climate change can certainly be a harrowing one, she maintains a positive mindset when speaking about it. She says her experience with low-waste living has been empowering and uplifting.

What I really like about trash is we can see the impact of our habit changes. We can see that we’re making a difference,” she said. “It creates this positive feedback loop, where the more you do, the more you want to do.”

Thole was inspired to make the change to a low-waste lifestyle after attending a 2017 TEDx talk by activist and researcher Carole Devine called “Cleaning Up Our Plastic Mess.”

“I didn’t really understand the enormity of the problem, and how it wasn’t just a problem in the ocean, it was a problem in the land and air and soil, and all these other places too,” said Thole. “I like to say that action feels better than anxiety, and when I learned about plastic trash, I was like, ‘oh my gosh, I want to do something.’”

In Canada, an alarming 91 per cent of plastics produced each year aren’t recycled, and the numbers are about the same in the United States. This means that the plastic take-out containers, shampoo bottles, and yogurt cups crowding your recycling bin will most likely end up in a landfill, or even the ocean, where they can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. To many of us, images of marine life swimming through layers of tangled plastic have become increasingly familiar, and the consequences of this reality can be extremely dangerous, threatening ecosystems and poisoning the food chain.

Although the problem is overwhelming, Thole decided to do her part by reevaluating the items she brings into her home and where they end up. She set a goal to fill her recycling bin as slowly as possible, so that she only needed to roll it to the curb once a season. Last year, she doubled up on this goal, filling her recycling bin a grand total of two times. That same year, she only took her trash can out once.

I think it’s fun to have goals … because then you start to see those tangible benefits, and it feels so good,” said Thole.

One criticism that the low-waste movement has faced is that it shifts responsibility from large, environmentally-damaging corporations and governmental bodies to individual consumers.

While Thole recognizes the importance of legislation and corporate action when it comes to tackling the climate crisis, she believes that the power of individual citizens should not be underestimated. For one, the more that individuals adopt sustainable habits, such as the use of reusable water bottles, the more those habits spread — and they can spread quickly.

“Governments and businesses, they move at such a slow rate. Whereas, as individuals, we can make this change today,” said Thole. “We don’t have to wait. And I think right now the crisis is at that point where we don’t have time to wait.”

Thole says her son plays a big role behind her quest to make sustainable choices. She says his love for animals and nature has been a great source of inspiration. As the weather warms up, the pair will soon embark upon what they call “litter walks,” when they venture outdoors to pick up trash that was formerly trapped beneath the snow. It’s an activity Thole and her son look forward to doing together.

“[He’s] a huge motivating factor for me, him and really all future generations,” said Thole.

Thole says she feels a moral responsibility to leave the earth “better than [she] found it,” for the sake of our planet’s future.


Feature photo by Christine Beaudoin

Student Life

From the world of advertising to the classroom

Marketing professor Peter Elenakis talks about his career and teaching methods

If you’ve ever taken one of Peter Elenakis’s marketing classes, you’ll probably agree that they aren’t like your typical John Molson School of Business course. Sure, his classes have lectures, assignments, exams—but they also contain something you wouldn’t expect from a business course: improv lessons.

For Elenakis, doing things differently helps students to get out of their comfort zones and see the business world in a different way. He said he brings in someone from Montreal Improv to work with the students in his MBA class once a semester, and it allows them to think more creatively.

“A bunch of these students are professionals and are used to a corporate environment and a certain way of doing things,” Elenakis said. “Doing the improv lesson allows them to accept other people’s ideas and also become better presenters.”

As Elenakis explained, presentations are a large part of the business world, which demands that students become expert presenters when pitching an idea. One of the methods Elenakis uses to make his students better at giving talks is to bar them from using PowerPoint.

“Surprisingly, the last few semesters that I’ve been doing this, the presentations without PowerPoint are better than the ones with PowerPoint,” Elenakis said. “I had one student sitting next to me say, ‘It’s not that good with the PowerPoint. We prefer without.’”

While teaching marketing courses at Marianopolis in Montreal before his time at Concordia, Elenakis noticed students were reluctant to present freely and express their ideas comfortably. At the time, Elenakis was doing improv at Second City in Toronto and noticed that improvising improved his presentation skills and his ability to think creatively. That’s when he decided to bring those skills to the classroom and taught his CEGEP students improv, before eventually bringing improv into his classes at Concordia.

Throughout his career, Elenakis has had other experiences with improv and acting. While working in the field on various marketing campaigns, Elenakis got to be in some TV commercials.

Elenakis said he was in a Rub A535 commercial and also got to play a bartender in a Johnnie Walker Whiskey ad. When asked about how he got to star in these commercials, Elenakis’s answer was simple: “We needed an extra and couldn’t afford anybody else.”

Elenakis’ presentation and improv skills aren’t the only tools he brings to the classroom. He also brings years of experience in business, which began all the way back in his college years, when he decided he wanted to go into advertising.

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth

It was his love of pop culture and television shows like Bewitched that piqued his interest in the field and eventually led him to business school at McGill University.

“As I went to business school, I fell into marketing, and there was a lot of pop culture and entertainment associated with it, so I liked it,” Elenakis said.

After graduating, Elenakis took time off to travel, before looking for a job in advertising. He sent out 50 CVs and called up every company he sent one to. Instead of asking for a job, he asked if the companies had any insights they could give him about the business world.

These conversations led to interviews ,which, after a while, led him to his first job in the industry. Elenakis has worked in Montreal and Toronto at companies like J.W. Thompson, Leo Burnett, Taxi, Cossette and a small media company called Mediavation.

At the beginning of his career, Elenakis got to work on big projects with some of the world’s most recognizable brands. However, as he explained, he had more of a junior role when starting out.

“I was an assistant media planner, so my job was to get information and determine where they should be spending their money,” Elenakis said. “I was working with Kraft at the time, and I got to look at their budget and see where they could allocate funds.”

Two other big projects Elenakis worked on were with Kellogs and Nintendo. With Kellogs, he worked in the product development department. At the time, the company was trying to position itself in the world of breakfast cereal.

After doing some research, they realized people were no longer sitting down to eat a bowl of cereal in the morning, so they developed on-the-go cereal bars.

“Foods like bagels and muffins were increasing in sales, so we had to figure out how to make our product on-the-go,” Elenakis said. “That’s when we took our Special K cereal and put it into a bar format.”

With Nintendo, Elenakis was originally in charge of their games division and licenses. Before moving on from the company, Elenakis got to partake in the launch of the Nintendo 64 in 1996, a console people still play to this day.

He explained that the biggest challenge in launching the Nintendo 64 was the supply coming out of Japan. Nintendo considered Japan and the United States to be their two biggest markets, while Canada was their third-largest. This meant Elenakis and his colleagues needed to find a way to generate demand, but not too much, because there wouldn’t be enough supply to appease increased demand.

“At that point, Nintendo was the primary sponsor of the Much Music Video Awards, so we paired up with them and launched a promotional campaign,” Elenakis said. This generated the perfect amount of excitement, and the launch of the console went as planned.

Now, Elenakis focuses his attention on small to medium-sized businesses as a media consultant. These companies are typically looking for advice on how their brands should grow and what their message should be when advertising products.

As Elenakis explained, the big difference between working with large companies and small ones is budget restrictions. However, bigger budgets don’t always make the job easier.

“Bigger budgets mean you can do a lot more, but it also means the approval process takes a lot longer,” Elenakis explained. “With small companies, you have to be more resourceful, but things get done quicker because you’re dealing with the owner or president directly.”

While talking about what makes a successful marketing campaign, Elenakis explained that strong insights into a product and how it relates to the consumer’s needs and desires is a recipe for success. Elenakis cited “The Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign by Dos Equis as an example.

“That campaign functioned on a very simple insight,” he explained. “When guys go out to the bar, they want to seem interesting, otherwise the girl won’t talk to them.”

For Elenakis, the ad worked off a simple premise, but successfully communicated to their target demographic. This is what makes a marketing campaign work.

Elenakis helps coach JMSB students for case competitions. Photo courtesy of Peter Elenakis

In addition to teaching and working with small businesses on the side, Elenakis is also involved with JMSB case competitions as a coach. These case competitions involve a group of business students who are given a situation, whether it’s about finance, marketing or administration, and they must come up with a solution. They then present their idea to a large group where they are judged against other schools.

In these competitions, the teams have about five hours to put together their 20-minute presentation. According to Elenakis, these case competitions are a great way for students to get practical experience.

“It teaches them how to solve a problem, come up with a creative solution, put together a presentation and then present it in front of the judges,” Elenakis said. “It’s a great skill set that they end up learning.”

As a part-time professor, one of the challenges he faces that full-time teachers don’t, is that he’s not always sure if he will be given a class to teach each semester. As he explained, there is no consistency, so it’s harder for him to make a schedule and plan around the courses he teaches. For instance, last fall semester, Elenakis wasn’t given a class.

Despite this hardship, Elenakis has never had a hard time getting what he wants or needs for a class.

“Anytime I ask people for stuff, I get it. There hasn’t been any hesitation, so I’d say it’s been pretty good,” he said.

While he didn’t get to teach this past semester, Elenakis enjoys his job as a professor and watching students grow and learn. As the years have gone on, he has seen students make the jump from the classroom to the professional world.

“One of the great things about teaching is seeing your students progress and going where they want to go,” Elenakis said. “I’ve seen students who wanted to get into advertising and investment and got into it and are now successful. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing that.”

Feature photo by Alexander Cole


The killer drug striking our nation

Rates of fentanyl contamination rise as a more potent opioid hits parts of Canada

Naomi Atkin had heard all about the opioid crisis. For the last three years, the 22-year-old volunteered with harm reduction organizations in Toronto. Among her responsibilities was attending concerts and raves to provide a safe support system to anyone who might have been experiencing a bad drug trip. However, it wasn’t until this summer when her former boyfriend died of a heroin overdose, that the epidemic took on a new meaning for her.

“I’d never been personally affected by it before and had someone actually die,” Atkin said.

Thousands of lives have been lost in Canada because of opioid-related overdoses, spiking in the 2000s with an increase in abuse of prescription and recreational oxycodone, according to the Globe and Mail. While Oxycontin—the brand-name version of oxycodone—was removed from the pharmaceutical market in 2012, other opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil have kept overdose rates high. Atkin’s home province of Ontario reported the second highest number of opioid-related deaths between January 2016 and March 2017, according to federal government statistics. This number, 865, was topped only by British Columbia, the province often deemed ground zero of Canada’s recent opioid epidemic. In April 2016, the province declared a public health emergency following a heightened number of fatal overdoses.

The number of opioid-related deaths in British Columbia was higher in the first six months of 2017 than it had been in that same time frame the year before. However, June saw the lowest number of deaths in 2017 in the province up to that point—a total of 111, which amounts to just under four deaths per day, according to the CBC. Despite the decrease in June, the presence of fentanyl in other illicit substances has accounted for an overall increase in drug overdoses in B.C. since 2012, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

Fentanyl is a potent opioid pain medication typically available by prescription as a patch and about 100 times more powerful than heroin. However, it is no longer the strongest opioid being mixed with other drugs. Carfentanil—which is about 100 times more potent than fentanyl—was first detected on the streets of Vancouver in November 2016, according to the Vancouver Sun. A month later, Health Canada confirmed the opioid was found in Ontario, manufactured to resemble green Oxycontin pills. As little as 20 micrograms of carfentanil can be lethal—a little less than a pinch of salt, according to the Alberta RCMP.

In August 2016, the Calgary Police Service, the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency confiscated one kilogram of carfentanil at Vancouver Airport. The confiscated batch would have been enough to create 50 million deadly doses, according to the RCMP. Between September 2016 and June 2017, carfentanil was reported in Manitoba, Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia and in a Saskatchewan penitentiary, according to the CBC. While carfentanil has yet to be detected on the streets of Montreal, Global News reported that 209 grams of the substance were seized at the Montreal-Mirabel airport in January.

Of these two opioids, fentanyl remains the most commonly found in Canada. According to an investigation by The Globe and Mail, black market fentanyl is being manufactured in China and illegally smuggled across the Canadian border in packages weighing less than 30 grams—below the legal weight of a package border guards can open without the consent of the recipient.

Fentanyl’s low cost and high potency allows drug dealers to spend less and earn more if they cut the opioid into other drugs, most commonly heroin, to heighten their effects. Across the country, there was a 40 per cent increase in street drugs testing positive for fentanyl, Global News reported in October 2016. According to the CBC, there have been cases in Montreal of fentanyl being found in cocaine, MDMA (molly or ecstasy) and PCP, among other illicit substances.

According to Dr. Warren Steiner, who obtained his degree from McGill and has been practicing psychiatry since 1988, many of Canada’s opioid users originally got hooked on prescription painkillers.

“Doctors, as a group, over the last 10 to 20 years, have been very irresponsible in their use of prescription [opioid] painkillers, and that led to a big part of this,” said Steiner, who has been employed at the Montreal-based private rehab centre 360 DTX since its opening in 2014. Over-prescription of opioids facilitated the development of addiction among many patients, Steiner said. “Then you progress from the regular prescriptions—you start buying from the street, and you go up the ladder to the more and more potent drugs,” he added.

Included in this phenomenon is what Steiner referred to as “divergence of prescription.” In Canada, Steiner said a significant number of prescription painkillers end up in the hands of someone other than the person they were intended for. “It’s not the person they’re prescribed to who ends up taking them—they get borrowed, given away, sold on the streets,” he said. “Divergence of prescription is a big part of the drug problem, and physicians have to take responsibility—and we are. There are now courses and more and more articles and education for doctors to be much more vigilant in prescribing opiates.”

Regardless of the origins of such substance abuse, a key factor in the current opioid crisis is the frequency with which fentanyl and carfentanil end up mixed with other drugs. Based on the stories Atkin has heard, it is something she said can happen more often than most expect.

“A lot of dealers sell more than one type of drug—so someone who has a lot of cocaine might also be selling heroin or fentanyl,” she said, adding that this can lead to contamination of lesser drugs. Traces of fentanyl as little as three milligrams—while sufficient to trigger an overdose—will not be enough to evenly contaminate an entire batch of cocaine. As Atkin explained, this makes contamination less likely to show up with a drug test kit if only a portion of the batch is tested. “That’s why it’s important to be prepared,” Atkin said. “You never know when that could happen.”

Atkin recently began volunteering at a pop-up safe injection site in Moss Park in downtown Toronto because she wanted to be more involved in preventing fatal overdoses. “I think that nothing good comes to people who are using heroin because it’s just so dangerous—especially now,” she said. “I saw someone overdosing on the street just a few weeks ago.” Although she had a naloxone kit with her—the opioid overdose antidote—an ambulance arrived before she needed to use it.

“I thought about it afterwards, and even though it was such a scary experience, I would rather have been prepared for something like that, than not at all,” Atkin said. “It’s important to realize that anything can happen at any moment, and being prepared is better than the alternative.”


Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

The opioid epidemic flows from British Columbia, the province often deemed ground zero of Canada’s recent opioid epidemic. Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin


Cold, clammy skin. A limp body, seemingly deep in sleep. Slow breathing. A faltering or halted heartbeat. These are the symptoms of an overdose.

Imagine you and your friends are sitting around a coffee table snorting cocaine. A mid-party upper to boost your energy perhaps. You start off small, to test your tolerance. Your friend, on the other hand, snorts a larger line. Following that bump, your friend sinks back into the couch, looking dopey or at least quite out of it. They become unresponsive and look as if they’re settling into a deep sleep. They may begin snoring or choking, their fingernails or skin may turn blue, their pupils may grow small or their eyes will begin to roll back. Not only is it important to know that these are not the typical effects of cocaine use, it could also be life-saving to know that these signs are likely indicative of fentanyl or carfentanil contamination.

Death caused by an overdose can happen within minutes of ingesting the drug, although it often happens up to a few hours later after the user has fallen into a deep sleep. Nonetheless, overdoses need to be handled swiftly.

In a scenario like the one described above, call 911 immediately. Someone should check the person’s breathing—if it’s slow or shallow, inject naloxone to regulate their breathing. If naloxone is not available, administer CPR to help the person breathe until first responders arrive.

If the person’s breathing is compromised, a lack of oxygen can cause brain damage within minutes. “When you have a lot more of that substance in your blood, then other receptors are also triggered, and those receptors are decreasing the ability of the brain to breathe,” according to Dr. Sophie Gosselin, a medical toxicologist at the McGill University Health Centre. “Rather than breathing at 16 breaths per minute, some of these people breathe at eight breaths per minute, or four breaths per minute,” she said. “That’s not enough to give the body all the oxygen it needs and that’s when they go into a coma.”

If you incorrectly assess an overdose and inject naloxone, it will not harm the person, as naloxone does not induce a high—it only blocks effects of other opioids to the brain.

“A death from an opiate overdose is really someone falling asleep, losing consciousness and getting into a very deep sleep where they can’t wake up, even though they should feel the need to breath—they stop breathing and they die from that,” according to Steiner.

As Gosselin explained, when the brain does not have enough oxygen it strokes out and your heart starts to give out––sometimes the user will stop breathing all together.

“If a user experiencing an overdose has a stroke from lack of oxygen and is placed on life support, the damage has already been done,” Gosselin added. “If taken off life support, their body would not have the ability to sustain breathing alone.”

Although there are three categories of opioids—natural, synthetic and semi-synthetic—the effects these drugs have on the brain are the same. They all bind to opiate receptors in the brain. The difference is the degree in strength of each opioid.

Natural opiates, such as codeine and morphine, are commonly used to alleviate pain and accompany a variety of medical procedures. “Those activate the opiate system very mildly,” Steiner said, adding that these drugs activate only about five per cent of a person’s opiate receptors.

Stronger, semi-synthetic opioids, however, such as heroin and oxycodone, have a greater impact on receptors. “They bind very strongly to these receptors in the brain, and they really turn on the system,” Steiner said. This is what makes these substances highly addictive, but also more dangerous. “The opiate system affects the respiration and the heart, which is why people overdose and die.”

Naloxone is the medication used to counter the effects of opioids and is either injected or ingested as a nasal spray. It can reverse an overdose by blocking opiate receptors, essentially pushing the heroin or fentanyl off the receptors, Steiner explained. “[Naloxone is] something that can save many, many lives if it’s out there in the community.”


The municipal government has been taking precautions over the last few months in preparation for a predicted influx of opiate overdoses. Safe injection sites were introduced at the beginning of the summer and, in September, the city announced an initiative to make naloxone more accessible.

An approximation of the amount of each drug that could induce an overdose. Photo by Alex Hutchins

Safe injection sites provide a space for users to inject drugs and, if there is a medical emergency, a healthcare worker employed at the site can attend to the person.

Two safe injection sites opened in Montreal in June: Dopamine in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and Cactus in downtown Montreal. “For us, it has been a nine-year battle to open this site in our facility,” said Martin Pagé, the director of Dopamine. Pagé said another safe injection site is set to open in the Centre-Sud neighbourhood this fall. Once all three sites are open to the public, they are estimated to provide service for a total of 200 to 300 drug injections per day, according to Montreal Gazette.

After the centres close for the day—Dopamine closes at 1 a.m. and Cactus at 4 a.m.—a van drives around Montreal offering a mobile safe injection space. The service is called Spectre de Rue.

Safe injection sites exist in Vancouver, with plans to open others in Surrey and Victoria have been approved by the federal government. Ottawa opened its first safe injection site on Sept. 26 and Toronto currently has a pop-up site in Moss Park.

When asked if safe injection sites would encourage drug use or not, Steiner said, “People are going to use drugs and they’re going to use them badly, but you try to protect them. You can’t just say because someone’s a drug user, they deserve to die.”

On Sept. 5, Mayor Denis Coderre announced a pilot project to supply police officers and firefighters in certain boroughs with naloxone kits and training to use the antidote, according to the CBC.

Access to naloxone has been scarce in Montreal, as only four pharmacies in the city carry the antidote, according to the National Observer. Additionally, proper training on how to administer naloxone has been limited to first responders, community workers and staff at the city’s safe injection sites.

“It is an epidemic in B.C. and it’s an epidemic in Toronto and the states,” Steiner said. “I wouldn’t call it an epidemic [in Montreal], but it’s certainly a public health crisis, which we don’t want to become an epidemic.”

Safe injection sites provide the community with greater access to naloxone. However, some, like Pagé, believe there needs to be greater access outside of these sites.

Pagé said he believes naloxone kits should be distributed in Montreal. “We administer at the moment, but we do not give the kit,” Pagé said. “[Police and firefighters] should have had [naloxone] a long time ago. For us, the authorities are a bit late.”

“It’s going to come east,” he said, referring fentanyl and carfentanil. “There was no reason to think that [Eastern Canada] should be spared from this crisis.”

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

Student Life

Uncovering privilege in everyday tasks

Why Canadians should be grateful they don’t have to wash their bed sheets every week

“How often would you say you wash your bed sheets?”

The Canadian interns’ answers: once a week, every two weeks, every month.

Ugandans? Every week.

The distinction was brought up during one of the bi-weekly check-ins for interns living on the compound in Gulu, Uganda, where any frustrations with communal living were aired out and discussed.

There were 11 Canadian and four Ugandan interns living on the compound, which also happened to be our workplace. We slept in huts—six women in one, five in another and the four men in a third. With two beds per bunk, we lived in pretty close quarters. Cleanliness and consideration for others’ space was definitely a recurring issue, especially in the shared common room.

Yet, it came as a surprise for many of us Canadian interns that our Ugandan co-workers were concerned about how often—or rather not often—we washed our bed sheets. Some of us argued that washing sheets was time-consuming, considering everything is washed by hand in Uganda. Others argued that their bed was their own personal space and, therefore, when and how often they washed their bed sheets was of no one else’s concern.

Another argument was Uganda’s frequent and sporadic weather changes. It wasn’t uncommon for it to suddenly rain—sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes all night—in which case our bed sheets would take more than a couple of hours to dry outside.

During a subsequent discussion with just the Canadian interns, however, a different perspective occurred to us. Back home, we have washing machines and dryers for laundry. That alone is a privilege, even in Canada. Laundry becomes less time-consuming. These machines allow us to do our washing without having to worry about weather changes. We get to decide when it’s convenient for us to do laundry.

Back home, we have the technology and the financial resources that not only make doing laundry convenient, but that add a level of comfort and ease to our lives many take for granted. We have a consistent supply of electricity. We have data plans when our Wi-Fi goes out. We have cars to shield us from precipitation when we travel.

This is not to say Ugandans don’t have electricity, Wi-Fi, data plans or cars—but what Canadians call everyday goods are luxury items in Uganda. I should add, though, that Ugandans are doing pretty well, even without our “everyday” goods. Solar panels are used to harness energy, bodas (similar to motorcycles) and bicycles allow people to get around and many Ugandans make do at home without Wi-Fi or data.

Another privilege was pointed out during the interns’ discussion: privacy. Canadians often have the privilege of sleeping in their own room. Even in situations of communal living, such as having roommates or living with family, we often have our own space with our own walls, bed and privacy.

Having a private space gives us the flexibility to wash our sheets at our own discretion. In contrast, Ugandans live not just with their immediate families but their extended families as well. They also have more children on average, meaning more people per household. In these cases, individuals live in closer proximity to one another. This means less privacy, not to mention a greater likelihood of smelling each other’s dirty bed sheets.

In Montreal, bed sheets are simply bed sheets. In Uganda, they were an eye-opening indicator of our privilege back home.

Community, Empowerment, Education, Development—or CEED—is a non-profit organization based in both Montreal and Gulu, Uganda. It works to empower youth to be agents of change in their communities through cross-cultural skills development and information sharing.

Each year, students from Concordia University travel to Uganda and work alongside Ugandan interns on various community projects that aim to benefit the youth of Gulu.

Julie Hoang spent the summer working as the head of social media for the Youth Advocacy and Communications project, which aimed to provide youth in Gulu a platform where they could share their stories of struggle and success.

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth


Outside of the museum: Part two

Montreal and public art, the final segment of a feature story published in two parts

Last week, part one of this story explained how public art was established in the city of Montreal and the province of Quebec.

When questioned about the importance of investments and politics of public art, Pascal Beaudet, project manager at the Ministry of Culture and Communications, said it enables artists to create imposing works. It gives them unequalled experience, as they are offered a great amount of money to create enormous pieces of art. “You don’t start creating monumental 35-feet pieces of art for your backyard,” said Beaudet.

“It brings many things to many people,” said artist Linda Covit about public art. Public pieces make art accessible, because people don’t have to enter museums or galleries to see works of art. How many times have you been to the Montreal Contemporary Art Museum this year? Probably not that many times, especially when compared to the numbers of times you’ve walked by works of contemporary art in the city.

After the screening of the documentary À Tout Hasard, artists took the time to discuss with the public why public art mattered to them. Artist Jean-Robert Drouillard said, due to a lack of contracts last year, he had to spend six months working for artist Marc-Antoine Côté. Public art allows professional artists to work and contribute to the urban planning, said Laurent Vernet, the commissioner of the Montreal Public Art Bureau.

Public art can prompt positive reactions too. Covit said a citizen once wrote to her about one of her pieces in St-Bruno, expressing how happy he was to walk past it everyday. “It really touched me,” said Covit.

A school in Ville Saint-Laurent even used the name one of artist Michel Saulnier’s sculptures to rename the school. He said he still receives reactions about pieces,  inspired by architecture, that have been installed for 25 years. “The work is living,” said Saulnier.

Public art really aims to integrate into the landscape, giving an identity to the location and becoming part of people’s lives. It makes people think and ask questions. For Johanne Sloan, an art history professor at Concordia University, public art makes art less elitist. “It brings art closer to everyday life,” she said. With time, Vernet said, those works of art become intricately attached to their location, using the example of the Melvin Charley sculpture at the Émilie-Gamelin park. “We can’t imagine those places without those works that define them and that give them their identity,” said Vermet.

The Fourth Plinth Project in Trafalgar Square attempts to draw in more interest from the public with it’s temporary art.
Photo from Flickr

Covit, who also created a monumental piece for the MUHC, said it’s important not to forget that the money invested in public art doesn’t go all into the artists’ wallet. For her MUHC sculpture, Le Havre, she had engineers, technicians, manufacturers, painters, electricians and light creators working with her. Those collaborators, and the materials needed for the sculpture, were paid for through the projects building budget. More than just public critics, some art historians also hold negative positions on the subject. Sloan criticized the one per cent decree because it can result in what she considers “bland art.” According to the professor, artists who want to please the public might create pieces that are not upsetting but that are not exciting either. “The more the artwork is triggering conversation, the more successful it is as public art,” said Sloan. Vernet, on the other hand, believes works of public art usually follow the artist’s line of creation and are not created only to please the public.

For Sloan, permanent public art tends to become like a type of furniture in the landscape, always there, which results in people not paying attention to it. Sloan said that other directions could be taken to make the works more interesting to the public. She said  temporary pieces of public art, which could trigger less anger because of their brief appearances, could encourage very interesting conversations. Trafalgar Square in London, for example, had a project called The Fourth Plinth Project, which offered a space for artists to create temporary contemporary sculptures amongst traditional permanent statues. “I think those projects are much more successful,” said Sloan.

To read the feature from beginning to end in its entirety visit


Outside the museum: part one

Montreal and public art, a feature story to be published in three parts.

Public art seems to bring out a lot of negative opinions in our province. So why does the government keep on investing in it?

“You’re not photographing this! It’s fucking ugly,” says a construction worker to artist Michel Saulnier, as he takes a picture of one of his public artworks: a larger-than-life bear, installed right outside the Children’s Hospital at the McGill University Health Centre.

According to the Bureau d’art public, there are more than 315 works of public art displayed around the city of Montreal, and they often elicit strong reactions — be they good or bad. In Suzanne Guy’s documentary on public art in Quebec, À Tout Hasard, artist Jean-Robert Drouillard recalls a moment when a teenage girl saw his life-sized dancer sculpture. “It’s not going to stay here,” she said to the artist, thinking he was a construction worker installing it. People are often shocked when made to look at contemporary art. “A [lesson of] at least notions on how to look at a piece of art, would be needed,” said Pascal Beaudet, project manager at the Ministry of Culture and Communications.

In the summer of 2015, the city of Montreal unveiled La Vélocité des Lieux, a work of public art by collective BGL on the corner of Henri-Bourassa and Pie-IX boulevards. Many people used the launch of this particular piece to express their discontentment with public art. In a Journal de Montréal story announcing the launch of the work, 133 people commented online, and very few had positive opinions. Many questioned why money was spent on public art, considering there were so many cuts to governmental services like health and education. “It’s ugly, too expensive and useless,” said one citizen in the comments. Even if one of the goals of public art is to, among other things, make art more accessible, negative opinions seem to hold more weight for those in the arts.

Why does the government keep investing in public art?

Public art, according to the Canadian Encyclopaedia, is commissioned for a public space where the composition, dimensions and proportions blend into the surroundings. “It’s a way of being directly in contact with art without having to make an effort,” said Beaudet.

When Saulnier was working on his bear cub statue on the MUHC site, a piece named Je suis là,  he experienced first-hand the reactions of having his works of art on display at a public site. Construction workers passing by stopped to comment on how they had asked for more materials and were refused, but that the government paid for an illuminated bear cub. Why is it that healthcare is being subjected to so many cuts, but the government has money for art, some would ask? For Saulnier, those reactions reflect a lack of understanding of the one per cent decree.

The Quebec policy of Integration of Art to Architecture, also known as the one per cent decree, was first established in 1961. With some modifications over the years, it has resulted in an obligation to spend approximately one per cent of the building’s total construction budget on public art. This policy applies to all buildings that receive grants from the government.

The decree promotes art creation and acquisition, advertises the works of Quebec’s artists and allows people all over the province to have access to contemporary art, according to Art Public Montréal.

The process of integrating art into architecture is complex. Beaudet said the integration starts with a file, a sort of bank, which gathers artists according to categories. Professional artists join the file on a voluntary basis, and then two members of the ministry and two visual arts specialists review their applications. There are many requirements that must be met in order to join the file: the artist needs to have Canadian citizenship, to have been living in Quebec for at least 12 months and to have professional artist status. Then, when a building receives a grant, a project manager will go through the construction project to create a committee that will establish the type of artwork to include based on the place and what would appeal to the people that occupy it. A few artists from the file will then be invited to propose a project.

While the ministry takes care of the art in the whole province, the Montreal Public Art Bureau, created in 1989, is responsible for all public art within the city. Laurent Vernet, commissioner of the bureau, said the one per cent decree is managed in Montreal by the bureau, following the ministry process. They also take care of the investments made by the city of Montreal outside of the policy.

Some projects are not included in the one per cent decree, but still receive investments from the city of Montreal. That was the case for La Vélocité des Lieux. The bureau needs to review those investments, making sure they are pertinent and fit correctly within the overall environment of the city. Since investment projects don’t have a predetermined budget, unlike those who qualify under the one per cent decree, the bureau works with comparable projects. Usually, the allotted budget will be of about one or two per cent of the total cost of the building.

This article is part of a long-form feature on public art that will be presented in three parts. Stay tuned for part two, which will appear in our Nov. 15 issue.    


Meet Shauna Zilversmit: team player and leader

Photo by Brianna Thicke

Shauna Zilversmit has never been happier. She has always wanted to play the sport she loves and study somewhere she knew she would excel. At Concordia University, her dreams came true.

Zilversmit, 19, is on Concordia’s women’s soccer team. With perseverance and a lot of effort, she was able to see plenty of minutes on the field as a rookie.

“In my first year, as a rookie, I got to play more than I could have hoped for,” said Zilversmit.

She also expressed a positive attitude towards the team’s results this season. Concordia finished in fifth place in the standings, one spot short of the playoffs. The Stingers also beat McGill, which was the first time the team has accomplished this feat since 1993. She expects a great season next year and says she really believes in her teammates.

“Being a part of a team that had such a great season full of accomplishments was a great experience,” she explained. “What I loved most about it was not only our accomplishments as a team, but also the girls. Everyone on our team got along really well and we were on the same page towards what goals we wanted to accomplish this season.”

Zilversmit believes if they continue with the same effort they had this season, the Stingers will be able to reach the playoffs.

“I know that with the work ethic our girls have, we will continue to strive for excellence and hopefully find a way to get ourselves to nationals,” she added.

Zilversmit’s love for the sport came from her parents Richard and Jo-Anna, who had enrolled her and her brother Shayne in soccer. From the moment she started playing, she got attached to the game. After many years of practice and games, she finally reached the elite AAA level.

She attended John Rennie High School in Pointe-Claire and was enrolled in the Sports-Études program that was installed there. Zilversmit said being in the program helped her improve her game. The program makes every student athlete go to class, Monday through Friday, until noon, followed by training in the afternoon.

After high school, Zilversmit attended Dawson College, where she studied in the cinema/video/communications program. She believed this program gave her the necessary skills in order to go into journalism, where she is now at Concordia.

“The idea of combining the two things I love the most and making a career out of it by being a sport broadcaster makes me even happier,” she said.

Zilversmit’s future in soccer dimmed as she suffered a torn ACL while playing for the Dawson Blues, her CÉGEP soccer team. She needed surgery on her damaged knee and had to take a whole year off to recover. The injury forced her to stay on the sidelines during the summer soccer season, however it didn’t destroy her motivation to get back on the field.

“It was the first time I wasn’t playing soccer since I first started when I was seven,” she explained. “It was a long recovery, but I was determined to get back on the field so I trained hard to get back.”

She made a return to the Blues at the end of the second season. Since then, she has passed on her talents and leadership to the Stingers, and cannot wait to play next year.


The hits that go unnoticed

It’s unfortunate that in a year that featured some of the most intriguing sports stories to ever surface, the topic of brain injuries remains the most prolific among them.

By now you have seen, heard and – if you’re one of the unlucky ones – felt the impact that concussions have had on the professional sports spectrum. The massive amount of attention by media pundits across the sports community is indeed warranted, for they are the voice of a burgeoning community that has long awaited recognition. Victims and their families, the doctors that treat them and fans that want nothing more than to see athletes back on a playing field that isn’t being filled with dirty play and disrespect.

Measures have indeed been taken to ensure player safety at the professional ranks. In sports where speed and contact are the main attractions, rules have been created in order to enhance the safety of vulnerable players. The NFL, a league that saw its concussion rate rise up 21 per cent from its previous season, implemented a rule midway through the 2010-11 season that made all hits to the head illegal.

On the ice, the NHL brass has been rigorously maligned for their lack of production in enhancing protection for their players. Though they seem to be lagging in their progress, one has to believe that there will be changes.

But, what about the students?

The athletes that don’t get nearly the amount of recognition they deserve are also in the midst of a concussion scandal.

“Our medical team has conducted evaluations on 20 athletes for suspected head injuries during the 2010-11 season,” said Sean Christensen, head athletic therapist for the Stingers.

Among them was Rob Mackay. The fifth-year quarterback suffered a concussion in the season opener after taking a hard hit to the head last season and missed some action due to lingering effects.

Among those effects are headaches, nausea and dizziness and sometimes even memory loss.

Bryan Chiu, a future Canadian Football hall-of-famer who played 13 seasons with the Montreal Alouettes and the current Stingers’ assistant offensive coordinator and offensive line coach believes that the growing problem is certainly one that can be fixed.

“I think it’s a matter of players not being taught how to properly hit,” said Chiu. “These days, players are a lot bigger and faster and they run around the field looking for the big hit, but don’t realize that guys can get hurt.”

There are those who believe that players, especially those who have been playing the sport all their lives, know how to engage in contact and that they simply lack the respect that sports purists believe was once an integral facet of athletics.

Chiu, however, disagrees and sees this as an opportunity to stop the growing concussion problem.

“It’s not so much as a lack of respect as much as it is a lack of emphasis on safety,” said Chiu. “It’s a game that features a lot of speed and guys have to know when to ease up.”

Christensen agrees.

“Education! From the medical community, i.e. what are the signs and symptoms of a concussion and understanding the importance of recognizing and evaluating these signs and symptoms. This applies to both the athlete and the coaching staff,” said Christensen in an interview done over email.

In light of recent events in the professional sporting community, concussions have been the predominant topic as of late, and with good reason.

“I think it’s such a hot issue because it’s happening more often,” said Chiu. “Key guys who play key positions are going down with head injuries and fans are realizing it,” he added.

For Christensen, the concussion discussion has been a reoccurring topic for years.

“Within the medical community it’s been a hot issue for years. Over the last 10 years there have been 3 international conferences on concussions (Vienna 2001, Prague 2004, Zurich 2008). The increased media attention is likely due to the increase in high profile athletes suffering head injuries,” he said.

While educating players may in fact be the main theme among those who are closest to the athletes, one has to believe that a total mindset adaptation of the athletes themselves has to occur.

Those who suffer from concussions may not feel such strong effects until many years after the injury actually occurred. Recently, the world of sports was dealt two disheartening blows when former NHL player Bob Probert passed away due to evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain condition that is caused by multiple concussions, and former NFL player Dave Duerson, who committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest so that his brain can be donated to scientific research on the effects of concussions.

It was discovered that Duerson also suffered from CTE as well as depression.

These two athletes were once young, hopeful and ambitious men who, like most young athletes, chose to live “in the now” and worry about the future later.

Chiu believes that that is a major problem with professional and student athletes.

“As a player, you tend to be very short-minded – you would play now and worry later,” he said.

As former offensive lineman for more than a decade, Chiu has suffered his fair share of head injuries.

“It could affect me down the road, but I’m not too worried about it. There were times where I came back to the sidelines in a bit of a daze, but I never suffered anything major,” said Chiu.

Today’s athletes, especially young collegiate ones, have an advantage over their predecessors. Modern technology and heightened awareness of head injuries has provided our student athletes with the utmost care, and measures to protect them are being taken.

“(Our athletes) complete a complex series of tests and a progressive return to play protocol.  A SCAT form (Sport Concussion Assessment Tool) is completed in the pre-season, after a head injury and during the rehabilitation process,” said Christensen. “Our team doctors are also advised to help diagnose and manage head injuries. This tool helps us track their symptoms as well as their cognitive ability (orientation, memory and concentration) and physical evaluation.”

A revolution of sorts is happening, one that can forever change the way our students’ safety is being treated.

In order to avoid repeats tragic cases like Probert and Duerson, the sports community needs to acknowledge the safety risks and move forward with the medical advancements that are happening every day.



Who says fighting is a man’s sport?

Jessica Branco will make her MMA debut Sept. 2 in Montreal. Photos courtesy Robert Strukelj

Since the early Roman times, when men would strap on their armour and prepare to battle each other in a coliseum filled with people, physical combat has been thought of as a man’s domain. Even in today’s supposedly enlightened society, a woman starting in any martial arts training program is often greeted with gender stereotyping and harassment from friends, family and co-workers. This response is often based on misinformation and prejudicial myths.


However, it hasn’t stopped many women from taking up a hard workout using their fists and any other body part that can hit a punching bag. Mixed martial arts is a relatively new full contact combat style. Fighters can use different skills from other combat sports. It’s a popular workout that entails strengthening the body and mind, and it’s catching the attention of females across the globe.

Even though women have not achieved the kind of success that male martial artists have, female fighter Jessica Branco sees a consistent growth in the sport’s popularity among women.

“I think girls will one day reach a point where we’ll be just as popular as male fighters in MMA. It’s different but can be just as entertaining. When girls fight, we get crazy,” she said.

One of the most challenging steps is always the first one. “It’s really intimidating when you arrive and want to sign up. Guys don’t take you seriously and I really wanted to make my place so I had to prove myself,” said Branco.

It won’t be long before Branco makes her presence felt, as she’s set to make her MMA debut at the Centre Pierre Charbonneau in Montreal on Sept 2.

Beyond the benefits it confers in fitness, self-confidence, safety and increased agility, martial arts is also fun.

An all-around fighting trainer, who boasts more than 25 years of experience, Maximiliano Ferraiolo has appreciation for the skill and strategy behind martial arts and knows a strong work ethic is required to be successful. “I’ve trained a lot of women and I really respect those dedicated to training and fighting,” he said.

Weight loss often drives women into martial arts, but they get hooked on it for different reasons. Ferraiolo says it’s about health and wellness for many women. “Recreational fighting is very popular amongst women. They train hard and don’t have to worry about preparing for competitions. Many of the girls don’t want to get hit but rather come for a gruesome workout.”

Peter Quieti, an all-around fighter, says people are now open-minded about introducing females to the sport. “Martial arts itself became so popular and people don’t care if you’re a guy or girl, black or white. They’re opening the doors to everyone.”

According to Ferraiolo, more women are also growing a passion for watching MMA. “I find that [Georges St-Pierre, Canadian mixed martial artist helped grow this sport’s popularity and if you go to a bar to catch a UFC fight, there are more and more women who follow it.”

As a religious fan of MMA fighting, Jakub Kaliszczak is quick to notice that the number of women watching UFC is rapidly multiplying. “There are more women in bars coming to watch UFC events and I’m definitely not complaining, I think it’s great. You can see that women like to see men fight,” he said.

Kaliszczak referred to a comparison which hasn’t changed from centuries ago: “It’s like gladiators from the Roman times, where everyone would enjoy watching, including women.”

For a free martial arts session contact Maximiliano Ferraiolo at the Académie Sportive du Parc located at 7290 Hutchison by calling 514-670-9935 or logging onto

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