News briefs

Obama speaks to NSA privacy concerns

On Jan. 17 U.S. President Barack Obama spoke in an international broadcast to address concerns that have plagued the global community for years regarding the National Security Agency (NSA) and its ability to collect information about private citizens.

In a 45-minute speech, Obama acknowledged many of the recent criticisms of the NSA’s intelligence-gathering practices, specifically those pertaining to mass collection and storage of personal data by the government.

“I believe we need a new approach,” said Obama.

“I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk meta data program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk meta data.”

The president also announced several other changes that would expand upon the procedures that regulate the oversight of the NSA and other such intelligence agencies.

Obama did maintain, however, that “we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies,” and that many of the proposals mentioned require legislation and debate on Capitol Hill, which could lengthen the time period before they are enacted.

Hearings over Quebec Charter of Values begin

Public hearings have begun over the controversial Quebec Charter of Values bill proposed by Bernard Drainville, minister for democratic institutions and active citizenship in the province.

The charter, which has drawn the ire of many, was tabled last year with the aim of “affirming the values of state secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests.”

The contentious issue at hand is that, if passed, the bill will ban the wearing of “overtly” religious symbols by any person working in the public sector. Affected positions would include police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and anyone else whose profession is directly funded by the government.

Although there is not currently any definitive list as to what would constitute an overt symbol of faith, the proposed bill lists items such as “headgear, clothing, jewellery, or other adornments which, by their conspicuous nature, overtly indicate a religious affiliation.” Also explicitly named is a ban on face coverings.

Numerous people have protested the bill, claiming that it discriminates against them.

Sanjeet Singh Saluja, a Quebec emergency room doctor and practising Sikh who wears a turban while at work, stated in an interview with the Montreal Gazette that if the bill were passed, he would leave Quebec before removing his turban.

“It almost says to me that I need permission to be an individual in this community. It’s both insulting and just plain racist,” Singh recently told the Montreal Gazette.

Another doctor, Michael Malus, who is chief of family medicine at the Jewish General Hospital, expressed his personal opinion that the bill was “legislated bigotry,” in an interview with the Montreal Gazette.

Despite the protests, polls show that the proposed bill has an approval rating of approximately 48 per cent. Hearings are expected to take several months.

More time on math does not equal better scores for Canadians

Canadian students are spending more time in the classroom than ever before, but that has not stopped their math marks from falling, says a study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

When the OECD’s international student achievement rankings were published in December, Canadian educators were dismayed to see that Canada had fallen to 13th place in math rankings.

Educators have advocated for more time spent on mathematics in the classroom, but according to this study, Canadian students already spend more time on math than those in any other country in the Western world.

Some have blamed the lower scores on the way that Canadian curricula are structured.

“We have a situation where we’re not focusing on the basics,” said Michael Zwaagstra in a January interview with Maclean’s.

“We’re focusing on everything else.”