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What I learned at law school: The poor need not apply

2 Dec

By Eric C. Girard 

‘I’m sorry, Eric, but there is nothing we can do for you.” Sharp pain and anger grew in my chest as I stared across the large wooden desk. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.

“Are you going to be okay? Let me know if I can do anything.” The words of the associate dean were meaningless, a performance dictated by institutional etiquette.Eric G. Girard's Experience at a Canadian Law School

“You mean I have to drop out of law school, in my third year?” Absurd, a comedy. I wanted to laugh and cry.

“We can make arrangements so that you can take an academic leave of absence for up to two years.”

It sounded like I would be planning the funeral of my academic career. As I walked away from the student service offices at the University of Ottawa, I felt I had reached the end of a long journey – a journey around an oval track, carrying a boulder on my back. The boulder was poverty, and its grinding physical and psychological strain had finally brought me to my knees.

The university shrugged its shoulders as the “hard work equals success” myth dissolved in front of me. Don’t come to law school if you are poor, was the message. Don’t try to become a lawyer if you are poor.

I was dropping out because I couldn’t afford to continue. Tuition for the year was $15,000 and the government’s cap on student loans for me was $12,000. I was denied a line of credit by five commercial banks because I had a low credit score and no one to co-sign. I had no one to co-sign because my mother made $19,000 last year.

What is it to be “poor”? For me it was being raised by a single mother on disability; public housing; the food bank; parcels from the Salvation Army at Christmas; seeing my brother stabbed nearly to death, police take my mother to a psychiatric hospital and Children’s Aid take my four-year-old niece. And not being able to do anything about any of this.


What does poverty look like? There’s the day to day: You open the fridge and there’s a mustard or mayo sandwich for dinner. Then the month to month: You wait for your bus, are buzzed like cattle into an Ontario Works cubicle to get your cheque, hang your head as a smiling volunteer hands you a box of food. You carry your box home on the bus, wearily eyeing the canned string beans and cranberry jelly from someone’s Thanksgiving.

Will your children be able to afford university? Tuition fees are through the roof in Canada with the average University student paying $5138 for a year of school. Ontario student assistance (OSAP)covers a fraction of the costs but the amount of long-term debt is detrimental as the average student owes $27 000 in debt after graduation.

Will your children be able to afford university? Tuition fees are through the roof in Canada with the average University student paying $5138 for a year of school. Ontario student assistance (OSAP)covers a fraction of the costs but the amount of long-term debt is detrimental as the average student owes $27 000 in debt after graduation.

You can use these images to tell a story, but what does poverty feel like? Usually it starts with anger. You are angry at yourself, your family, and the indifferent forces that eventually grind you down. You push against these feelings because you don’t have the luxury – you have to keep on. You feel vulnerable. You teeter between risks not taken because the difference between failure and success is homelessness. Or you take stupid risks because you have nothing to lose.

I learned early on that anger and envy will paralyze you. You need to deal with it somehow. My mother had prayer and Jesus Christ; my brother turned to drugs. I did what I was told and became what is known as a member of the “respectable poor.” To be in this group you study hard, stay out of trouble, respect your scummy restaurant bosses and borrow on your Visa card at 25 per cent interest. Most importantly, you buy into the myth “where there’s a will there’s a way.”

My generation has reluctantly accepted the myth amid “austerity” and a new type of poverty. We’re entering the work force just as employers, governments and unions are hedging themselves against falling pensions, benefits, pay and jobs. Two years ago we said “enough” and occupied parks across the world. Our neighbours eventually got annoyed and gave police and politicians the nod to push us back to our Starbucks jobs, where we exist between the dreams of our parents, our useless degrees and the reality of minimum-wage jobs. We make your lattes to the tune of our own contempt.

Occupy Ottawa

For those who have made it out of this youth unemployment crisis, there is a sense you are either lucky or connected. We also feed the myth. We need it. Why else would we borrow $50,000 for an education?

Meanwhile, school administrators, politicians, employers and bureaucrats prune away to make that education inaccessible. The law school adds an extra box to a scholarship application that puts it out of reach, or raises tuition another $1,000.

I faced a phalanx of administrators at the University of Ottawa, each pushing me along with a version of “No, we can’t help you until you pay your tuition.” When I got to the top of the authority chain I felt like I was meeting the all-powerful Wizard of Oz. But unlike the wizard, the associate deans weren’t incompetent – they just didn’t care. I gave them a short story of my life and current circumstances and they told me my only recourse was to apply for an “emergency bursary.” But since my financial hardship was “foreseen” I didn’t qualify.

A hidden type of homelessness, individuals unable to afford rent “couch surf” by seeking shelter from friends or family members. This situation is often thought of as temporary but with over 10,000 people on the waitlist for social housing, a person could wait four years for assistance. At times they are forced to turn to the streets or unsafe living environments.

A hidden type of homelessness, individuals unable to afford rent “couch surf” by seeking shelter from friends or family members. This situation is often thought of as temporary but with over 10,000 people on the waitlist for social housing, a person could wait four years for assistance. At times they are forced to turn to the streets or unsafe living environments.

I am by far not the only one who’s faced this crisis. Since I opened up to my peers, many have told me they are in the same boat. This is why there are so few working-class lawyers.

Fortunately for me, my own story has a happy ending. This summer, when I’d accepted I would have to drop out, a friend offered to co-sign a loan. Knowing I would graduate on time meant I could apply for articling positions, which led to an offer that I hope will be my one-way ticket out of poverty. I know I got lucky.

Chicago’s New Pet Peeve…Koch Brother’s Pet Coke Piles

31 Oct

by Robin

It seems that Chicago is now the new Detroit.  Or is, at the very least, suffering from one of the maladies that Detroit has been dealing with since November of 2012, when Koch Carbon, owned by the Koch brothers, began depositing huge amounts of pet coke on their leased ‘storage property’.  It’s the ‘ever growing black mountain that is unloved, unwanted, and a long overlooked byproduct of Canada’s oil sands (tar sand) boom’.  And the Chicago mountain, like Detroit’s, grows daily, at an alarming rate.


The mountain of black in Detroit stirred up concern on both sides of the border, with calls for the International Joint Commission, a bilateral agency that governs the Great Lakes, to investigate the pile.  Michigan’s state environmental regulations has submitted a formal request to Detroit Bulk Storage, the company holding the material for Koch Carbon, to change its storage methods.  Michigan politicians and environmental groups have joined the cause…the clouds of black dust that the wind stirs up are not only an environmental hazard, but a health hazard as well.  Let’s face it, breathing in this stuff is the last thing anyone should be doing!  After all, coke is mainly carbon.


So, before anyone can even deal with the disaster in Detroit, the Koch brothers move to Chicago, and are building a mountain of pet coke there.  No, folks, they’re not about to let little problems like EPA standards and nearby residential distress bother them in the least.

The NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is investigating the Chicago sites, the BCBX and Beemsterboer facilities and the origin of the material on the sites, according to Meleah Geertsma, an attorney in the NRDC’s climate and clean air program.  The sites will be subject to permitting requirements related to fugitive dust and any run-off into the river.  Apparently these mountains of pet coke are too large to simply cover.  Scary, eh?  These piles are affecting air quality.  The neighborhoods in Chicago that are near this mountain of poison are already showing the highest toxic metal and sulfate concentration in the state.  Those things cause heart disease and asthma.

The human cost of Detroit's petroleum coke

Residents of Southeast Chicago aren’t amused by the growing mountain of pet coke piling up near their homes.  Chicago has earned the nickname of ‘the Windy City’, and when the wind blows, clouds of black dust rise from this ever-growing mountain, and cover nearby neighborhoods.  Picnic?  Not unless you want a mouthful of black dust.  Residents complain that it’s so bad they’re power-washing their homes every week to wash off the black, dusty residue.

What coke looks and feels like

Just what is ‘pet coke’?  Well, it’s a byproduct of tar sands oil.  Waste, basically, although it does have its uses.  Petroleum coke, or ‘pet coke’ is a carbonaceous solid derived from oil refinery coker units or other craking processes.  This coke can either be fuel grade…which is high in sulfur and metals, or anode grade, which is low in sulfur and metals..  Raw coke directly out of the coker is referred to as ‘green coke’.  (Don’t be fooled, there’s nothing ‘green’ about this stuff!)   Pet coke is an essential ingredient in steel-making, and for producing the electrical anodes used to make aluminum. Petcoke looks similar to coal but is considered more environmentally noxious, since it has significantly higher carbon content and blows off piles more easily. Petcoke tends to have “higher metal content than coal – like nickel, vanadium and selenium,” said Meleah Geertsma, “Coal can have higher mercury content, so they’re both bad in terms of toxic heavy metals content.”


One of the piles along the river is nearly five stories high. (Photo by Kari Lydersen / Midwest Energy News)

The pet coke mountain in Chicago starts by way of a BP (British Petroleum) refining facility in Whiting, Indiana.  It’s then sent by train, truck, or barge to the Southeast Side sites owned by KCBX Terminals.  That company is controlled by Charles and David Koch.  The bad news is…BP has plans to triple the amount stored in Chicago by the end of the year.

Writing in NRDC’s “Switchboard Blog”, Henry Henderson asks:

“Is this the vision Big Oil has for the cities of the Great Lakes?  Is this the transformation that Chicago city officials have in mind when they talk about a revitalized river system and investments in our port – a step back to the worst messes of our town’s industrial past?  Make no mistake, this is a problem.  And it is one that will be growing quickly as the region’s tar sands refinery expansion projects come online.”

A report issued from Oil Change International warned that ‘because of the production of pet coke as a result of tar sands refining, the impact of the Keystone XL is much more disastrous for the planet than previously thought, putting a strong nail in the coffin of any rational argument for the further exploitation of the tar sands.’  Let’s remember, anything not good for the planet isn’t going to be good for us, either!

The Koch brothers

The biggest question that comes to mind is…why?  Why are these mountains of pet coke sitting in Detroit and Chicago?  Why do they continue to grow?  Why are those involved in the production of pet coke so unconcerned about the health of the people who live and work near their ‘storage facilities’?  One word.  M-O-N-E-Y.  It’s all about the money, baby.  From the tar sands in Canada to the pet coke mountains growing in the US, it’s all about the money.  Koch brothers are major dealers in petcoke…to the tune of selling 11 million tons annually.

What’s even scarier is the fact that China uses pet coke as a cheap alternative to coal for generating electricity.  The Environmental Protection Agency won’t allow any new licenses permitting the burning of pet coke in the US because of the pollution potential.  But when has China ever worried about the environment, or their impact on it?  Burning pet coke will only add to the air pollution that hangs over Chinese cities in clouds of gray…obscuring visibility.  Remember the news story about the building that burned for several hours before anyone in the city noticed?  That’s pollution, my friends.  That’s terrifying pollution…because that smog isn’t staying there in China.  It enters the atmosphere and adds to the growing global warming that we’re all desperately trying to slow down…I don’t think stopping it is even possible now!

Air pollution in China

China isn’t the only customer for pet coke, however.  India and Latin American are demanding US pet coke for fueling their cement-making kilns.  Yeah, I know.  Laws requiring environmental protection aren’t very strict regarding the use of pet coke in those countries, either…if such laws exist at all.

Is there anything we can do?  I’d like to think there is.  Stand up to tar sands projects like the Keystone XL and the Flanagan Pipeline.  Demand stricter environmental laws regarding the production and storage…and use…of pet coke.  Demand fines and taxes and tax penalties and export taxes on every ounce of pet coke that is sold.  Take from those the very thing they’re after…money.  And…stand against the oil companies that continue to rape the land, whether in the US, or Canada, or somewhere else, for oil.  Educate friends and neighbors to the facts.  Demand clean energy in the form of solar and wind power.  Cut the strings that the puppet-masters…Big Oil and Mega-corporations…use to control politicians.  Vote out those who refuse to stand up for what the people want.  Elect men and women who aren’t afraid of the ‘Big Boys’.  Men and women who understand that there’s more at stake here than profit.  The future of the planet…the future of mankind…is at risk.

Sources for this article are listed below.