Two institutions that deserve our outrage

TORONTO (February 2000) -- PEOPLE GET OUTRAGED about the strangest things. At the moment, the media and the Reform Party are dancing the indignation tango together over Human Resource Development Canada money and the sloppy handling thereof.

My Canadian Oxford Dictionary says that an "outrage'' is an extreme or shocking violation of others' rights; a gross offence or indignity. The feeling of "outrage'' is defined as "fierce anger.''

I put it to you that the sloppy handling of money, reprehensible and dismaying as it may be, is not an extreme or shocking violation of rights. Further, the right-wing media are not experiencing "fierce anger'' so much as they are drooling with "fierce joy'' at the chance to whip the public up against all government spending as inefficient, wasteful and useless.

For real outrage, outrage that should truly shake us out of our warm complacency and rattle us into vigorous protest, consider the horrible actions of two powerful and respected Canadian institutions - the defence department and the University of Toronto.

First, the defence department. It was CBC Radio (what would we do without it?) that broke the news last week about Terry Riordon. An autopsy on the Canadian veteran, who died last spring at age 45, has shown that his bones contained depleted uranium, or DU, a radioactive substance used by U.S. forces in the Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Riordon, a strong and active Canadian Forces military police officer, went to the Persian Gulf in 1991 and came home to Nova Scotia sick and dying. For nearly a decade, Canadian defence officials pooh-poohed the idea that DU could have been a cause of Riordon's case of Gulf War syndrome. The mysterious, painful and debilitating symptoms have affected at least 50,000 U.S. Gulf War veterans and an unknown number of Canadians.

Depleted uranium is cheap and plentiful, and therefore used to make armour-piercing shells and bullets. DU was first used in combat, in huge quantities - one million rounds of shells and 800 tonnes of residue left behind - in Iraq, where the lingering poison is said to have caused sickening increases in childhood cancer and death.

DU burns on impact and vapourizes to a fine powder. If one particle of DU enters the lungs, the lungs and surrounding tissues will be exposed to 270 times the levels permitted for workers in the radiation industry. Uranium in the system migrates to the bones, the marrow and the organs.

While Defence Minister Art Eggleton constantly denied that our Gulf War veterans could have been harmed by DU, Terry Riordon suffered agonies. "His eyes changed colour; his semen burned; he lost control of his functions,'' his wife reported. Military doctors dismissed him as having "post traumatic stress'' or - outrageously - "hypochondriasis.''

Now that Riordon's lifeless body has yielded the evidence - high levels of DU in his bones and tissues, nine years after exposure in the gulf - Art Eggleton says "it's very sad.''

It's not "very sad.'' It's criminal negligence and it's outrageous. The department can do no less than reveal all it truly knows about DU - and extend full recognition, assistance and recompense to Canadian soldiers and their families who have been exposed to and suffered from deadly radiation.

In the second case of outrage that has troubled me recently, Dr. Kin-Yip Chun has also struggled for a decade against a "gross offence and indignity'' that should cause "fierce anger'' in any principled observer.

Last week, an Ontario Human Rights Commission investigation said that there is evidence that an "old boys' network'' in the geophysics section of the University of Toronto's department of physics effectively screened out racial minorities who sought faculty jobs. Among the evidence: Other faculty who freely told the commission that the geophysics section was a "cohesive, well-knit . . . congenial, British . . . group.

Chun won his M.A. from Columbia University and his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley.

As a geophysicist, he was internationally recognized and spoke at United Nations nuclear disarmament conferences.

As a research associate at the University of Toronto in the '80s, he brought in $1.4 million in outside grants, taught graduate students and conducted important research.

Despite all this, and despite being made an assistant professor, he was never paid a salary by the university, which itself has admitted "exploiting'' him.

Time after time, Chun applied for and was passed over for tenure-track professorships. White males were always hired by the all-white-male geophysics section.

Several times, the department bypassed normal procedures and hired outside the regular search procedures. The university was unable to provide the documents justifying those "informal'' hirings.

They had been shredded.

The whole thing is sickening. The university vehemently denies practising racism. But the record speaks for itself: the geophysics division has never had a visible minority or female tenured faculty.

In the university as a whole, visible minorities make up more than 50 per cent of the undergrads, but less than 9 per cent of the tenured faculty.

As the human rights commission pointed out, systemic racism exists when the racial minorities in a workplace repeatedly describe a humiliating, poisoned atmosphere and when the objective facts - the sheer statistics and the record of crony-style hiring - is self-evident.

Those who support the status quo (having blandly benefited from being part of a privileged majority) always deny the existence of systemic racism, dismiss the significance of these statistics, and scoff at the importance, to marginalized groups, of seeing other minority people win advancement.

That habit of official denial at the University of Toronto has gone way beyond "disgusting.'' I pass by its ivied walls and I am outraged.

*Michele Landsberg's column usually appears in The Toronto Star Saturday and Sunday. Her e-mail address is


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