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University of Toronto

Background: Founded as King's College in 1827, the university has evolved into three large campuses: Scarborough, Erindale in Mississauga and the historic St. George campus in downtown Toronto. Highly regarded around the world for its research and teaching, the university has more than 50,000 undergraduates and 13,000 graduate students.

Culture: It is predominantly a commuter campus, and the political culture may at times appear sleepy and disinterested. But what the university lacks in political activism it makes up in competitiveness. The U of T is regarded as one of Canada's most research-intensive universities. It has a large number of students from first-generation immigrant families, highly motivated to excel.

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Some students, however, have made their voices heard, staging sit-ins and rallies. On March 20, 2008, 14 students were charged after a sit-in over tuition increases at the university's administrative buildings turned violent. The charges have been dropped. And in 1972, 75 students occupied the Senate Chamber at the University of Toronto's Simcoe Hall administration building to protest against the senate's refusal to allow undergraduate students and the general public complete use of Robarts Library. The acting president called in police and 21 people were arrested.

Impact on learning: Sandy Hudson, president of the U of T's student union, said the fact that students have to hold down part-time jobs to pay for their studies takes away from a complete university experience. And many students leave the campus after class to make the commute home. As a result, many are unable to participate in university-based activities or join clubs. "I think it's important to supplement the academic experience with these other experiences as well," Ms. Hudson said. "I think that it helps people become more critical, it helps them to question things further."

(Caroline Alphonso in Toronto)

University of Ottawa

Background: The University of Ottawa began in 1848 as the College of Bytown, a boys' school. It was, even then, a bilingual institution where English and French students worked together in the same classroom. A university charter was granted in 1866. The school nowhas about 38,000 students, more than 5,000 of them doing postgraduate work.

Culture: The defining element of the University of Ottawa is its claim to be North America's largest bilingual university - one-third of the students are French. But it is also one of the most multicultural postsecondary institutions in Canada, with students and faculty members from 150 different countries.

Located in the downtown of the capital city, it attracts students interested in politics but has never been a magnet for radicals or activists. The protests that led American conservative commenter Anne Coulter to cancel a speech this week were exceptional, students say, though there is no shortage of political discourse. In two weeks, for instance, the school will hold a symposium on the Haitian crisis, and speakers will include the mayor of Port-au-Prince.

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Impact: A small core is politically attuned; many are not. One third-year psychology student said it was clear on the day after the Coulter incident that the vast majority of those in her class had never heard of the woman at the centre of the controversy.

When asked she was aware of major protests on campus, Radha Gopalan, a 21-year-old neuroscience student said: "I don't notice things like that. I don't think they actually happen." What Ms. Gopalan said she does see, in abundance, is inclusiveness. Nana Boame, a 19-year-old biopharmaceutical student, said there are many groups on campus devoted to political causes. If that is what you are into, "there are many options," she said. But "there is not really pressure to become involved."

Don Dawson, a professor of leisure studies who has taught at the university for 28 years, said that "despite some recent episodes," the university has not had a history of conflict. But, like other Canadian universities, said Dr. Dawson, the corporate drive to be seen as a centre of excellence "means there is less tolerance for any kind of radicalism."

( Gloria Galloway in Ottawa)

University of Calgary

Background: Founded in 1966 and located in the city's leafy northwest, the university has more than 29,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as professional schools including business, education, engineering, law, medicine and veterinary medicine.

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Culture: The university, which is located in a conservative hotbed and economic powerhouse where protest is generally muted, is a place where students focus on their studies to build their careers. Still, the campus has not been immune to student activism. Last month, about 500 students, some wearing garbage bags, protested against massive tuition hikes and heckled a university official. "It showed our students are willing to take part in civic action, but they have to be moved to the cause," said Charlotte Kingston, president of the students' union.

Impact on learning: It is generally a commuter campus, but life at the university has picked up in recent years. The number of student societies has ballooned to 215. Students engage in summer research opportunities, mentoring and work programs, community service and volunteering with an eye to establishing their careers. "There's a concentration on leadership activities," Ms. Kingston said. Alan Harrison, the university's provost, described the campus as respectful to a diversity of views: "The purpose of a university is to encourage and promote the free exchange of ideas. To do anything other than that is, I think, to go against what the university stands for."

(Dawn Walton in Calgary)

Concordia University

Background: Concordia University was established in 1974 from the merger of Sir George Williams University and Loyola College. The school has 44,000 students, with about one-third enrolled in part-time studies and a quarter in graduate studies.

Culture: Concordia has working-class roots and is a hotbed of activism - at least compared with its stuffier neighbour, McGill. Concordia is among the most ethnically diverse of Quebec's universities. The school has been a haven for mature students and immigrants, with about a quarter of students having a mother tongue that is neither French nor English. Students and alumni describe the urban campus as collegial but very politically engaged. "Students are open to share, it's almost more of a family structure," said student Jeff Hackett, 29, who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in geography. "It has to do with different cultures that amalgamate here. It also has a lot to do with teachers who promote that kind of mentality."

Impact on learning: Concordia's reputation was badly damaged by a riot in 2002, when the mix of ethnic diversity and extreme political activism triggered clashes between Muslim and Jewish students, leading to the cancellation of a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu, then a former Israeli prime minister. Alumni and administration have moved to lower the temperature, encouraging moderates to move into student government. Exhibitions that once provoked violent confrontation in the main building's mezzanine are now staged several floors up. Sign rules keep one side of a debate from overwhelming another. "Concordia got badly burned with the Netanyahu thing and it learned a thing or two the hard way from it," said religion professor Ira Robinson. "They've learned how to keep things reasonably respectful but reasonably open." But debate isn't stifled, according to Muslim Student Association president Abdullah Husen. "There's just a lot more friendly discussion going on." Concordia has just become a more accurate reflection of "the Canadian value not to be quite so adamant about spreading your views." Today, Jewish and Muslim student groups organize an annual joint banquet to help keep relations friendly.

(Les Perreaux in Montreal)

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