Christin McCaffrey: Keen about kids

When Christine McCaffrey was a little girl, there were two things she wanted to be when she grew up: a teacher or a mother. "It alternated every year," laughs the director of the McGill Child Care Centre.

"I knew at an early age that being with children was important for me."

Being with children remains important to McCaffrey even though she may only get to see the centre's charges once a day. "A visit with the kids is like a break for me; it's where I can refocus on what's important.

"Childcare is made up of relationships and for me to have a sense of what children and their families need, I need to see them," explains McCaffrey. "When you're working in partnership with families, the goal is to create a program that balances the needs of the families and bridges understanding."

The centre's children, all 106 of whom belong to employees or students of the University, represent at least 40 cultures, a diversity that is celebrated at every opportunity. "We've just celebrated Sukkot," she says. "In one class last year, the children could sing Happy Birthday in five or six languages."

A tougher component to McCaffrey's job involves finding a way to maintain the centre's high standards in the wake of recent government legislation.

Part of Quebec's five-dollar-a- day daycare policy involves the mandatory provision of lunch.

The MCCC doesn't provide a lunch and doesn't have an industrial kitchen required to do so. Installing such a kitchen in the down-at-the-heels series of four greystones that comprise this rambling centre would be expensive, as would be providing the meals.

McCaffrey fears that if the centre has to comply with the lunch program it will have to cut elsewhere: either into the "iron triangle of good daycare," as she calls it: low staff-to-children ratios, high staff qualifications and small group sizes, or into the "extras": the skating, French and music programs.

The MCCC is already penalized for its commitment to a better than average staff-to-children ratio -- it receives funding on the basis of the number of children it serves, not on the basis of the number of staff looking after the kids.

To know what the parents, staff and board members feel on the lunch question, McCaffrey recently sent a 12-page information document and questionnaire to everyone.

"She's good at responding quickly to concerns like that," says English professor Berkeley Kaite, a board member and mother of a child at the centre.

Kaite has been impressed by the director's "commitment to families" and her respect for the teachers -- all of whom have degrees or diplomas in Early Childhood Education (which is not the case in all Quebec daycare centres).

"She tries to make the classroom a place where the teacher can develop her own program, choose her own books. The teachers know that they're maîtres chez nous," says Kaite.

For her part, the director likes her job, though she'd like to spend more time with the children, to "learn more from them" and "go back to a time in your life when things were poetic."

"Recently in one of the two-year-old classes, a little boy said: 'You're Chris. Miss Chris. You're Chris Miss.' Then, realizing the word he'd made, he said it four times!"

McCaffrey returned to her native Montreal, with her husband and two daughters, ages six and nine, in order to be close to her family, and she's still getting used to the relatively loose daycare rules in Quebec.

While deciphering the ins and outs of the government's new policy has been her greatest challenge on the job, McCaffrey is relieved that she doesn't need to consult Alberta's four-inch-thick book of daycare rules any more. Candles and balloons, for instance, are not permitted in the land of Ralph Klein. "It's 'safety hazard, safety hazard,' all over the place.

"Here, there's more the attitude that candles are a part of life so you might as well learn how to behave around them. The responsibility is put on the community to govern the quality of childcare and that's good."

Bronwyn Chester

Sweet line of research

Yes, the Nobel Prizes have all the prestige and glory, but if you really want to have a good time, get yourself an invitation to the annual Ig Nobel ceremonies.

Sponsored by the science humour magazine, Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobels are awarded each year for research that "cannot or should not be reproduced."

Like, for instance, the scratch and sniff clothing invented by Hyuk-ho Kwon, which was modelled at the ceremony by four Nobel laureates.

As the Nobel winners dutifully scratched and sniffed, Kwon, one of the night's Ig Nobel laureates, declared, "This is my greatest honour."

Steve Penfold, a PhD student at York University, represented Canada at the awards, earning an Ig Nobel in sociology for his doctoral thesis, "Tim Horton of Hamilton: Suburban Culture and the Donut Store, 1950-1985."

"When you're doing research about donuts, you have to get used to getting teased once in a while," says Penfold of his Ig Nobel experience.

Penfold, who is finishing off his thesis while preparing a less academic account of Canadian donut shops for a book, says his research isn't all that unique in that many scholars are re-examining the history of different commercial products in an attempt to get a better understanding of popular culture.

Penfold says he was drawn to donuts because as a suburban kid, he spent a lot of time hanging around Tim Hortons. His dad was sort of the Norm Peterson (Cheers) of the place. "I learned valuable lessons about life from him there."

He suspects he earned the Ig Nobel because Americans don't have the same kind of affectionate link to donut shops that Canadians do (British Columbia being the exception -- they just don't appreciate donuts there).

"Since I won the Ig Nobel, I've been getting all kinds of e-mails and phone calls from Canadians now living in the States, talking about how, when they think of Canada, they think of donuts."

The disappointment of the century ... who left Canada dramatically more divided and drastically poorer than he found it.

Historian Desmond Morton, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, summing up Pierre Trudeau's years as prime minister to The Globe and Mail.

Irresponsible reporting

Mark Wainberg (pictured) is fed up with a lot of journalists.

Wainberg, the director of the McGill AIDS Centre and the president of the International AIDS Society, thinks that some reporters, in their search for lively copy, are promoting theories about the disease that are just plain wrong. And dangerous to boot.

In an essay recently published on the ABC News web site, Wainberg complains about how some reporters cover AIDS.

"In spite of our knowledge, and, indeed, considerable scientific progress in the field, it seems as though the press is often anxious to present dissenting views to the effect that HIV does not cause AIDS, and stories appear in reputable newspapers virtually every week that make this point.

"Often spokespersons for fringe groups, with little or no scientific training and credibility, are asked to provide quotes on the subject."

Wainberg is angered because medical researchers are virtually unanimous in pinpointing HIV as the cause of AIDS. That AIDS patients now have access to effective drug therapies is one piece of proof -- the drugs work by blocking the replication of HIV.

He worries that raising doubts about the link between HIV and AIDS "is most likely to resound well with the least educated and most vulnerable members of society, including street kids, the urban poor, drug users and members of aboriginal communities."

Says Wainberg, "Too many journalists anxious to do these stories seem to think that the public health consequences of their articles are not their concern."

He was a real live wire, an academic inspiration. He kept us all alive and excited... His work was clearly path-breaking.

Economics professor Antal Deutsch, speaking to The Globe and Mail about former McGill colleague Robert Mundell, the Nobel Prize winner this year in economics. Mundell, who prepared one of the first plans for a common currency in Europe, was a McGill professor in 1963/64 and a visiting professor here in 1989/90.