Some UBC Okanagan students flooded out of homes


A sprinkler pipe burst on the top floor of a relatively new condo building at UBC Okanagan, resulting in flooding throughout four floors.

“The fire alarm turned on. I didn’t know exactly what happened, so I looked out my eyehole and I just saw water near the elevator shaft,” UBCO student Sayhanyo Saha said.

“The water was all the way to the ground and then we were taking our brooms with a bunch of other people who were living on the floor and [sweeping] the water down the stairs that way,” said UBCO student Sahej Mangat.

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The flood happened late at night on Feb. 4, during the cold snap.

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“There was nobody around, so there was a lot of water for a long time before somebody could turn it off,” suite owner David Green said.

“When it very first happened, it was like walking into a sauna. It was terrible,” said Donna Craig, who manages several properties within the building.

Students have since been told they have to move out by next week.

UBCO to research psychological impacts of life in wildfire, flooding areas

The U-Two building was recently constructed by Mission Group in 2016. It houses 112 condos and everybody has to leave.

“Right now they say that there’s a lot of moisture content in the walls. That’s why everyone’s going to have to leave: because of the mould issue,” Saha said.

“A lot of people are frustrated.”

Craig said she had 21 students in the building, and she’s still trying to help some of them find a new place to live.

“But it’s difficult. Some of the kids are having to split up, so they’re having to bunk in with other kids, and I think that’s going to be a scenario that happens a lot here,” Craig said.

“They’re going to have to be couch surfing for a bit.”

More than 100 students are scrambling to find new homes in Kelowna’s expensive rental market, which has a notoriously low vacancy rate.

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To make matters worse, students are being forced to deal with the flooding and moving during midterms.

Craig said she’d been told that it would be six to eight months until tenants would be allowed to live in the building again.

“We may not even get possession back for September, which will be devastating for the owners,” she said.

The student union recommends that affected tenants review their legal rights and contact student legal aid or the financial aid office for extra assistance.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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Elementary students challenge Quispamsis town council on climate change – New Brunswick


Five Grade 5 students at the École des Pionniers Elementary School in Quispamsis, N.B., have made a pitch to town council on the issue of climate change.

The students are asking the town to sign the Citizens’ Universal Declaration of Climate Emergency. They feel the time to act is now.

“Our planet is technically in danger, and we need to change it now before it’s too late,” said student Diego Arseneault.

Advocacy groups call on federal government to declare climate change a public health emergency

“It’s going to be our world, and if we don’t make change now, it’s going to be too late by the time we’re in charge,” added Leah Doucet.

The students took turns over a 10-minute period to make the case for signing the declaration. They referenced events close to home, like record flooding in the spring of last year, as a potential sign of things to come. These pre-teens say they’re already concerned.

“I’m worried about our future and I want other people to have a good life and not have to worry about the future,” said Arseneault.

The town doesn’t sign declarations as a matter of policy but did recognize the declaration and invited the students to work with the town’s climate change committee.

Richmond may be next city to declare climate emergency

“I really think that they understand what we were trying to say and that we all hope that every human has a happy planet and there’s a better world,” said student Jacob Somers.

Grade 5 student Chloe Ryder added: “I think that at least we put the word out and that they’ll think about it.”

The school’s principal says they were hoping council would have signed the declaration right away but is encouraged moving forward.

“We’re very open to the idea of discussing this with them and giving them the right arguments to actually step up and sign and align with us,” added Anik Duplessis.

Halifax joins Vancouver as 2nd Canadian city to declare climate emergency

The mayor says the students certainly made their point.

“We feel that this is extremely important and we want to make sure that we do this and work with the schools and the community,” said Mayor Gary Clark. “We certainly are forward-thinking in the town, where we already have started this in 2018.”

At the end of the day, the wish is quite simple, according to student Isabel Cormier. “It’s really important for everyone to live a happy life and including the earth — to live a happy life.”

Halifax and Vancouver are the only two major Canadian cities to have signed the declaration. Several communities in Quebec have also signed.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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Former students start petition to save Riverdale High School – Montreal


Jason Comm, Amanda Lovelace and Sam Godon have fond memories of attending Riverdale High School.

“There are families and generations that have gone to this school,” said Lovelace while at a meeting with Liberal MNA Monsef Derraji.

The three former Riverdale students met with the Nelligan MNA to see what steps can be taken to save their old school.

Riverdale High School building to be handed over to French school board

Francois Legault’s CAQ government announced Monday that it was closing the English school in Pierrefonds, and giving it over to the over-crowded French Marguerite Bourgeoys school board.

“This is an English institution. We have to keep it around because we are Quebecers, too, and deserve to have our institutions maintained,” said Comm.

WATCH: Quebec a key battleground in federal election campaign

The group has started a petition to try and keep the school open, and Derraji says the petition could help him make a case to the minister.

“It is something I can take to the minister and say, ‘this is serious and from our community,’” said Derraji.

While at a caucus meeting in Gatineau, Premier Francois Legault told reporters that the party considered having the French school share space with the English school, but that after months of negotiations, realized that it wouldn’t work.

English schools in West Island will fill empty classrooms with French students

“We were open to this scenario, but after reviewing the number of students in the different schools, it was possible to have the school only for francophones,” said Legault.

Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge says that the overcrowding situation at the French school is a “crisis” and so the government had to take action.

Comm and his friends are convinced that there has to be another solution — one that keeps Riverdale open and in the English community.


© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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Does Ontario’s Regulation 274 help or harm students?


Concerns have been raised by school boards, principals, parents — and teachers themselves — over a hiring rule that gives preference to supply teachers with the most seniority, and Ontario’s education minister says that’s why the province is now reviewing it.

“From my days in opposition to my first day as minister, right through to today, I’m hearing a lot that (Regulation 274) is impeding teacher mobility, it’s causing frustration with principals with regards to interviewing some of the qualified candidates, and I also want to check in to make sure” that hiring is transparent and equitable, Lisa Thompson told the Star in a telephone interview.

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, said any changes to the hiring process should be made in upcoming contract talks this summer.
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said any changes to the hiring process should be made in upcoming contract talks this summer.  (Jim Rankin / Toronto Star)

Last month, the province wrapped up public consultations on a number of education issues — including sex-ed — that saw 72,000 people take part, and now wants to hear from teacher and support staff unions, as well as trustee associations, on changes to class size, full-day kindergarten and hiring practices.

Under Regulation 274, implemented in 2012, teachers hired into long-term and permanent positions are to be chosen from among the five applicants from the supply teacher pool who have the most seniority within the specific board.

The rule was created at the urging of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, to curb nepotism, mostly in smaller boards. While initially opposing the regulation, other unions came to support the seniority-based change.

But principals have said the rule complicated the hiring process and administrative work, and it doesn’t always allow them to hire the best fit for the job.

A consultation document distributed last week says “the Ministry of Education recognizes teachers as the single most important out-of-the-home factor in student success. This is supported by research that suggests that what teachers know and are able to do is crucial to student learning. As such, teacher quality is paramount in ensuring students are able to succeed in the classroom.”

It goes on to say that Regulation 274 was created to “bring greater transparency, fairness, consistency and accountability to school board hiring practices of teachers. However, since its implementation, stakeholders … have raised concerns about the regulations. As boards make hiring decisions under the regulation, we have been told that student success may be negatively impacted and there have been some unintended consequences.”

The ministry says issues include how teachers lose all their seniority when they switch boards, meaning “permanent teachers could see this as a barrier to relocation” because they have to start over as supply teachers if they move.

A statement from Thompson about the consultations says the government also wants to start “reviewing the elements school boards should take into consideration when inviting candidates to interview for teaching positions” to ensure they are “interviewing the most-qualified candidates,” as well as “start discussing which factors should be taken into account … to ensure more transparent hiring practices.”

The regulation has led to situations where principals have interviewed the top five candidates, meanwhile applicants who might exceed qualifications “would not qualify for an interview.”

“This ministry has heard concerns about hiring that is heavily based on seniority … (that it) only values time spent on a list. It does not value quality of teacher, commitment to students, experience/time spent in a particular school or suitability for the particular assignment,” the document says.

Unions have heard complaints from their members about the mobility issue and said that is one area of the regulation they’d be willing to discuss.

Even former premier Kathleen Wynne — whose government introduced the regulation — said in 2013 that it went too far in trying to correct hiring problems by making seniority the main criterion.

Harvey Bischof, head of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said, “We are absolutely prepared to engage in consultation with this government and can offer, as we have in the past, solutions to some outstanding problems with the hiring regulation.”

But Sam Hammond of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario said any such changes should be made in upcoming contract talks this summer.

“Quite frankly, we were a little surprised that the fair hiring piece was there,” agreed Liz Stuart, head of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association. “Because that’s not a funding issue — we see that strictly as a bargaining issue.”

Hammond said a 2014 provincial report disputed criticisms that school boards were hiring unqualified candidates or that the rules were preventing young, diverse teachers from landing jobs.

“That report says that 274 is a more consistent, transparent and fair hiring process for Ontario teachers,” Hammond told the Star.

Toronto grandfather Charles Wakefield — who has long fought for the end of Regulation 274 — said “imposing a seniority-based teacher hiring policy has not been in the best interest of Ontario students and parents.”

He is a part of a groups called Parents for Merit-Based Teacher Hiring, which urges the government to cancel the regulation “after years of harm.”

University of Toronto Professor Charles Pascal, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said great teaching and “highly skilled teachers that can relate to the students they are working with” are the most important factors in hiring.

While he said he’s a “union guy at heart, I just think this is a balance of fairness for those who have been waiting around — there are a lot of teachers on that list who are highly qualified and who have proven their worth” and those who are just coming out of teacher education programs like the one at OISE.

“I’m a little soft on anything other than quality pedagogy trumps everything,” he said.

A private member’s bill introduced in 2013 by then PC education critic Lisa MacLeod — now minister of children, community and social services — sought an end to the regulation.

At that time, several boards had complained about a “domino effect” of the rule that led to “multiple teacher changes in some classrooms” within a school year.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy


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Kingston high school students create their own instruments in guitar-building class – Kingston


Rocking out on their very own handcrafted guitars is music to the ears of several students at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute (KCVI), who created the instruments from scratch as part of a guitar-building focus program at the school.

Rebecca Amell is one of the students taking the course. Amell can’t believe she is finally strumming along on her new custom-made instrument.

“It’s honestly amazing because you just hold it and you’re like, ‘Wow, I made this,’” said Amell. “It just warms my heart.”

It took several months for these guitar builders to get everything right, from brainstorming an idea to building practice stencils to putting together the finished product.

String by string, students poured their blood, sweat and tears into what are now recognizable styles of the musical instrument.

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“It was a really fun build. It was time-consuming and stuff, and it costs a lot to do,” said Danny Vaughan, a student in the class. “It’s a fun program.”

Building guitars isn’t new for KCVI students. Pat Tanden has been teaching the class for a number of years now, and it has evolved from building acoustic guitars to electric ones. He says when students realize what they’ve made, it’s a satisfying feeling.

“When they plug in and realize that this instrument plays as good as any in a store, it creates that specialness that we have within us,” said Tanden.

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A total of 17 electric guitars were made in the class. Several models of guitars were designed and built, including Gibson SGs, Explorer Gibsons and Fender Telecasters. Some of them are quite unique, including a guitar made with wood and a blue resin that gives the instrument a glow as if a light is shining behind it.

If any of these instruments were sold in a store, they could be priced at hundreds or even thousands of dollars. When asked if he would trade in his hard work for cash, Vaughan said not a chance.

“It’s just my guitar I built myself. I couldn’t put a price on it,” he said.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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Students call Tories’ funding changes ‘frustrating,’ ‘terrifying’ and ‘devastating’


Amy Mather doesn’t know what she’ll do now that the province has ended her free tuition.

“It’s terrifying, to be honest,” said the 21-year-old, who’s studying child and youth care. “I’ve been at Ryerson for two years now on free tuition and it’s still very difficult.”

Mather is one of thousands of students hit last week by the provincial government’s announcement of a sweeping package of reforms to the Ontario Student Assistance Program and tuition. It includes a 10 per cent cut to tuition fees across the board, but it also means the end of both free tuition for lower-income students and of the six-month grace period on interest being charged on loans after finishing a degree. Those are changes that many students say will make paying for their education much more difficult or impossible.

Mather says it might cost her the chance to finish her degree. The whole reason she decided to go back to school, after a year off, was the free tuition program, introduced by the Liberal government in 2016.

All her tuition was covered under the grant and she also qualified for an OSAP loan that covers living expenses, such as the $1,300 in rent she pays for a basement apartment with her partner in Ajax.

Mather has an idea of what it will be like without the free tuition because she started her post-secondary education at Carleton University in 2015, before it kicked in. She incurred $18,000 in debt from that first year alone.

“And then I took a year off because I couldn’t afford it,” she said. “I can’t even describe the amount of struggling.”

Merrilee Fullerton, the minister of training, colleges and universities, told reporters Thursday the 10 per cent tuition cut will translate to “significant savings for students and their families,” and that the goal is to focus resources on the students with the greatest need.

She said OSAP costs are out of control and noted the auditor general projected in December they could balloon to over $2 billion annually by 2020-21, an increase of 50 per cent from four years earlier.

About 300 students protested in front of the legislature on Friday to protest the end to free tuition for low-income students.

Stephanie Bertolo, vice-president of education at McMaster Students Union and a recent arts and science grad, said the decrease on the “sticker price of tuition” is a relief for students on the surface but “we are disheartened to see that it is changing to a formula we don’t think is necessarily going to help as many students.

“We’re seeing a portion of the grants turned back into loans.”

Abdullah Mushtaq, director of advocacy for the College Student Alliance, called the cuts a “devastating” move.

“It’s going to have the biggest impact on low- and middle-income students,” he said. “That couple of thousand dollars is still coming out of their pockets.”

For Donald Giancoulas, the changes will mean $800 in savings on the cost of his studies overall but also a huge change in his grants-to-loans ratio, which is now about 70/30. He’ll also face the immediate start of interest being charged on his loans.

“It will end up costing me more money,” he said of the reforms.

He’s getting what he believes the government considers a “secondary” or post-graduate degree, in accounting from Sheridan College. For these kinds of degrees, loans will be a minimum of half the aid provided, another one of the new changes announced by the province last week.

It’s a change Giancoulas estimates will cost him about $1,500 on an $8,000-a-year program. “Any time you go into something where you have a plan and then someone changes the plan, it’s frustrating,” he said, adding he’s committed to finishing his education.

“But that’s going to come with a little bit more hard work and a little more effort.”

With files from Rob Ferguson and Kristin Rushowy

What do the changes mean for you? The Star has you covered:

10 per cent tuition cut:

Across the board, the province is cutting tuition for domestic students by 10 per cent. For a student attending an Ontario college, this will add up to an average savings of $340 depending on the program, Post-secondary Minister Merrilee Fullerton told reporters.

Free tuition:

This has been scrapped by the province. Brought in by the previous Liberal government, it allowed qualifying students to have 100 per cent of their tuition covered by grants that they didn’t have to pay back, and still qualify for OSAP to cover living expenses. Now the province is converting more of the grants to loans. No one will have their tuition covered entirely by grants.

Individual impact:

It depends on your exact situation. The province said in its news release Thursday that under the new plan 82 per cent of grants will go to students with a family income of less than $50,000, up from 76 per cent under the previous government. However, those students will still have to pay for some of their tuition out of pocket through loans.

According to examples on the government’s calculator, if your parents make a total of $50,000 or less a year, and you’re doing a university undergraduate degree, the ratio would break down as a $7,100 grant and $7,600 loan. If they make $70,000 under the same scenario then it’s a $6,100 grant and $8,600 loan.

Second degrees:

If you’re doing another degree, like a postgrad college certificate, graduate degree, or law school, your loan-to-grant ratio will be a minimum of 50 per cent loan, the government says in its news release.

Mature students:

The definition of a mature student, which the government calls an independent student, will change from someone who has been out of high school for four years to someone who’s been out of school for six years.

This means that you’re tied to your parents’ income longer, and your OSAP grants and loans calculation will be connected to your parents’ income for six years after you’re out of high school, rather than four.

The OSAP interest grace period:

It’s gone. Under the old Liberal government, there was a six-month grace period after finishing your degree before you had to start paying back your loans. The idea was this gave you time to get on your feet and find a job. You still have the grace period on making payments but now interest will accrue during it.


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Westmount Park Elementary School students to be temporarily relocated to 2 separate buildings – Montreal


A contentious plan to split Westmount Park Elementary School students up during a two-year renovation blitz is officially moving forward.

The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) announced at a special meeting on Wednesday that students will be temporarily transferred to two different buildings for the duration of the project.

READ MORE: English Montreal School Board parents weigh in on disputed school moves

Students will be relocated to Marymount Academy in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and the former St. John Bosco Elementary School in Ville Émard for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years.

Both locations will house kindergarten to Grade 6 students in order not to split up siblings, according to the school board.

The $12.5-million overhaul of the elementary school, which was built in 1913, will fix major structural issues.

READ MORE: Parents voice concerns over relocation of students at Westmount Park School

The plan has been met with both praise and concern from parents at school board meetings. Some said they were worried about where their kids will be transferred and separated from their friends.

At a consultation meeting last week, parents of Marymount students also voiced concerns over taking in hundreds of Westmount Park students.

WATCH: Westmount Park Elementary School students will have to move out of their school for two years

New French immersion school delayed

After announcing last October it would open a new French immersion school in NDG in September 2019, the school board says those plans have now been pushed back.

The elementary school was slated to open at 4850 Coronation Ave. — but now that building could instead house students from three other EMSB schools that are currently overcrowded.

READ MORE: English Montreal School Board plans to open new French immersion school in NDG

The EMSB says it is considering its options and that it will consult with the schools and their committees.

A decision is expected to be made by the school board’s council of commissioners on Feb. 20.

— With files from Global’s Elysia Bryan Baynes

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School hosts fair to guide students toward career options – Montreal


Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School picked up where the Lester B. Pearson School Board dropped off.

The school held its own career fair day for students in grades 9, 10 and 11 when the school board cancelled its career day last fall.

READ MORE: The $100K entry-level job you can get here in Canada

Hundreds of kids had a break from class as they toured more than a dozen kiosks made up of CEGEPs, trade schools and vocational job opportunities.

The annual event aims to help students continue their education or find future job opportunities as traditional career paths often don’t fit all student needs.

“I have taken pamphlets and have people explain stuff, so it’s cool,” Jayden Alleyne, a Grade 11 student, told Global News.

This year, only students from PCHS could attend after the school board cancelled its event in November due to bad weather.

WATCH: EMSB holds career fair

Staff members and students of PCHS were thrilled to attend and be part of the abbreviated career day.

“It’s not a one size fits all thing for kids,” said PCHS principal Colleen Galley. “Every kid is different and I think what has happened over the years is we’re moving from thinking you have to go CEGEP and university to be successful.”

“There are so many different pathways to success.”

LBPSB officials hope to host a much larger career fair day next year with students from all of its member schools.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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York students fume as ‘outrageous’ GO bus changes take effect, forcing many to pay two fares


The daily commute for thousands of York University students got more expensive and less convenient this weekend, after GO Transit discontinued its bus service to the school’s Keele campus.

As of Saturday, bus routes that used to terminate in the heart of the North York campus have been diverted to Highway 407 station on the new TTC subway extension, about 2 kilometres away.

Students taking GO Transit buses to the school now have to pay a second fare and transfer to the subway, which stops directly at the campus. For adult Presto fare card users who don’t have a monthly TTC pass, the additional subway ride costs $1.50 each way.

The change affects seven GO bus routes and about 575 daily bus trips to and from the university that are used by about 8,600 riders every day.

Among them is Jaskarn Duhra, a 19-year-old commerce student whose trip to school requires him to take a MiWay bus to Square One Shopping Centre in Mississauga, then a GO bus, and now a TTC subway.

“Now I actually have to accommodate more time to my commute,” said Duhra, adding he worries about being late for exams and other important events.

“It just makes it a lot more frustrating,” he said.

Sébastian Lalonde, vice-president of campaigns and advocacy for the York Federation of Students, said the organization has received “non-stop” emails from students complaining about the change.

The GO service adjustments come on the heels of York Region Transit deciding last fall to divert its bus routes from the campus to nearby Pioneer Village subway station.

Lalonde complained that students were never consulted about the changes despite their having a direct impact on their daily lives.

“These were all closed door conversations,” he said. “This is outrageous.”

The federation is calling on GO Transit and YRT to reinstate campus bus service.

Anne Marie Aikins, a spokesperson for Metrolinx, the provincial agency that operates GO Transit, said it “has always been part of our plan” to divert bus routes to Highway 407 station once the subway extension opened.

She said the new route to the subway could improve service reliability, as buses travelling directly to campus often encountered gridlock that could delay them by about 20 minutes.

The subway extension entered service in December 2017, but according to Aikins GO bus service to campus was maintained for the following year “to minimize financial impact to York University students.”

The school’s administration said it wants GO buses to come back.

“We have made this clear to the Ministry of Transportation, Metrolinx and the York community. At this time, Metrolinx has advised the university that it will not consider reversing its decision,” said York spokesperson Yanni Dagonas in an email.

Both the students federation and the school administration say they support integrating fares between GO Transit and the TTC — a move that would allow passengers to ride both services on a single fare.

But although last January the former Ontario Liberal government introduced $1.50 adult fare discounts for transfers between GO and the TTC, full integration, which would likely require a significant subsidy from Queen’s Park, has yet to be put in place.

According to Ted Spence, who was a senior policy adviser at York University until 2007, the need for fare integration between the TTC and other transit agencies serving the extension was apparent before the subway was even under construction.

“The issue was clear at least 10 years before the subway opened but there was no resolution at the political level,” he said.

In a written statement Monday, Ontario Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek said the Conservative government considers fare integration to be “important not only to York University but to the entire region.”

He didn’t say if or when the government will implement such a policy.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr


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OCAD students reimagine AGO artwork for visually impaired visitors


Peter Coppin remembers the discussion with a visually impaired student that helped him understand how much can be misunderstood when a person has to depend on words to understand what someone else can see.

They were talking about Italy and the student knew that Italy is shaped like a boot. But when Coppin described it as a boot with a high heel like the Three Muskateers would wear, the student laughed out loud. He had been envisioning Italy as an entirely different kind of boot shape, and the idea of Italy as a Muskateer boot was comical to him.

Rachel Han (left) and Norbert Zhao, OCAD university graduate students of the Inclusive Design program, stand alongside Tom Thomson's The West Wind at the Art Gallery of Ontario holding their multi-sensory interpretive project.
Rachel Han (left) and Norbert Zhao, OCAD university graduate students of the Inclusive Design program, stand alongside Tom Thomson’s The West Wind at the Art Gallery of Ontario holding their multi-sensory interpretive project.  (Cole Burston / Toronto Star)

It’s these chasms in understanding that Coppin and the Art Gallery of Ontario are trying to bridge with a program that brings multi-sensory projects, based on works of visual art, to AGO museum tours for people in the blind and low vision community.

While in the past museums have relied heavily on audio recordings and guides to bridge that gap, new practices are being brought on board, including multi-sensory aids designed by graduate students at OCAD University.

“Visuals are dominant in our culture. If you are a part of society and you don’t have access to visual items, then you don’t have access to a lot off stuff about the culture that people who have vision have access to,” says Coppin, associate professor of the inclusive design graduate program and director of the perceptual artifacts lab at OCAD University.

In Coppin’s graduate class, students select a work of art at the AGO to interpret for people living with vision loss.

Nadine Addada (from left), Jing Poli, and Carisa Antoriksa with their interpretation of James Tissot's La Demoiselle de Magasin.
Nadine Addada (from left), Jing Poli, and Carisa Antoriksa with their interpretation of James Tissot’s La Demoiselle de Magasin.  (Cole Burston)

This year — the second year of the program — the works included four paintings: Tom Thomson’s The West Wind, Otto Dix’s Portrait of Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann; La Demoiselle de magasin by James Tissot and Jar of Apricots by Jean-Siméon Chardin.

In a way, it’s about getting back to the roots of what museums used to be, said Melissa Smith, co-ordinator of the gallery guide, adult education officer and access to art programs for the AGO.

Early museums began as private collections, typically belonging to the wealthy, who would share art and artifacts they had purchased or collected on their travels. They were displayed in “wonder rooms.” People were allowed to touch the items as part of the experience.

The AGO already offers multi-sensory tours for people living with vision loss, which include some works that can be touched — including the museum’s large Rodin sculptures — under supervision, but providing 3-D support for works of visual arts offers the possibility of evoking more than just the sense of touch.

For months, Coppin’s students grappled with the idea of how to render the terrifying look on Dr. Stadelmann’s face into a tactile experience and how to communicate the cold of the water in The West Wind.

“We were totally drawn to this portrait; the eerie atmosphere,” said student Shannon Kupfer, speaking of the Dix portrait. “I was dying to interpret it.”

Dix layered paint on the doctor’s eyes — they appear to bulge. He seems haunted. His hands are in fists by his sides. Kupfer and her partner, Tyson Moll, wanted viewers to feel that tension, and also feel the deep wrinkles in his face.

They made a 3-D replica of the doctor’s head in polymer clay that felt cold and a bit yielding, but still firm to the touch. The eyes bulge like they do in the painting. They sewed hair onto his head in little batches, to mimic the strokes of the paintbrush in the painting. They made the body boxy and rigid, to communicate the physical tension in the painting. They gave him a rigid collar, backed by cardboard. His fists were made of polymer clay coated in silicone.

They also made it out of products that were easy to care for — the clothes are fastened with Velcro to make it easier for curators to remove them and wash them if necessary.

The multi-sensory version of James Tissot's La Demoiselle de Magasin at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The multi-sensory version of James Tissot’s La Demoiselle de Magasin at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  (Cole Burston)

They recorded an audio component — a fluent German speaker reading a passage from one of Dr. Stadelmann’s writings, concerning avant-garde art in relation to what was then considered psychiatric wisdom. They included the hissing noise that used to accompany recordings played on records.

“It’s not just engaging for the low-sight community, it’s engaging for everyone. It’s such a cool way to get kids — or anyone — more engaged with art,” Kupfer said.

The problem of communicating the coldness of the water in Tom Thomson’s piece was solved more simply, with a bag of blue slime. To convey the feeling of wind, the students invested in a $20 miniature fan from

“When you stand in front of this painting you can feel the strong wind because of the shape of the tree and the waves on the lake,” said student Norbert Zhao.

Nikki To (left) and Grace Mendez hold their multi-sensory interpretation of Jean-Simeon Chardin's Jar of Apricots.
Nikki To (left) and Grace Mendez hold their multi-sensory interpretation of Jean-Simeon Chardin’s Jar of Apricots.  (Cole Burston)

John Rae, who lost his eyesight in his 20s and is now blind, has been on the AGO multi-sensory tours and experienced the works made by this year’s OCAD students. While he liked the Otto Dix sculpture, some things didn’t communicate as planned. For example, without knowing anything about the painting, when Rae touched the sculpture, he thought the doctor was a boxer wearing gloves, because of the way the hands felt.

“That comes from me as a sports fan,” said Rae, a retired public servant and a board member of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians.

Rae liked the multi-sensory adaptation of Jar of Apricots, by students Nikkie To and Grace Mendez. The painting is a still life that includes a jar of apricots, a glass of wine, bread and a cup of tea. Their model included dried apricots for tasting, jarred scents including a cork soaked in wine and apricot jam with added artificial apricot scent; 3-D printed objects including a tea cup and wine glass to handle, background music from the period and others sounds — touching the wine glass triggered the sound of a liquid being poured.

While Rae believes the multi-sensory aids provide another tool, he thinks museums in general need to consider making more objects available for handling by the blind and vision impaired. He cited as an example ancient pottery — while a museum may have perfect examples on display, it may also have imperfect examples in storage. What would be the harm, asks Rae, in making those available to people with limited eyesight, especially since the tours happen infrequently, involve about six to 12 items, and small numbers of people?

Tyson Moll (left) and Shannon Kupfer with their multi-sensory interpretive project alongside Otto Dix's Portrait of Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann.
Tyson Moll (left) and Shannon Kupfer with their multi-sensory interpretive project alongside Otto Dix’s Portrait of Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann.  (Cole Burston)

“One can learn a fair amount from the expertise that the people who run these tours bring to the table, but there is no substitute for being able to touch,” Rae said.

The challenge at the AGO, Smith said, is that in an art gallery the works tend to be flat and one-of-a-kind.

“Our conservators and curators do their utmost to ensure the objects, like sculptures, which make the most interesting objects to touch, are cared for and exhibited to support this program,” Smith said.

Ian White, president of a local Toronto chapter of the Canadian Council of the Blind called the CCB Toronto Visionaries, said that while AGO tour leaders excel at describing art in a way that triggers the imagination, the multi-sensory tours are evocative.

“It starts a conversation about the piece, about the artist, about the history,” White said.

“It really allows people to engage with works that are part of our collective culture.”

Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF


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