All posts by Alec Wilson

Editor-in-Chief 2015–2016 Comment Editor 2013–2015

“Yes, it’s a cult”

Veronica was running late, though she wasn’t in a hurry. It was 10 minutes past eight o’clock on a damp and dreary Tuesday in January. She was on her way east, walking leisurely through downtown, to confront a suspicious clutch of people who had recently started showing up to her weekly community art events. Escaping the weather, she walked up the short steps to the front door of a townhouse on Queen Street and rang the doorbell.

30-Blatantism-Jennifer Su -IMG_4135EDFor the past year or so, Veronica has organized an event series called the Sacred heART Jam at the altar of the Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields on Bellevue Avenue every Thursday. The heART Jam is a self-described “radically” inclusive group of diffuse participants who come to the church to explore “the interdisciplinary study of being” through collaborative painting, theatre games, and discussions of social justice reminiscent of the Occupy movement.

The sound of the doorbell could be heard from within the house as Veronica waited patiently for someone on the other side of the door to greet her. A few weeks before, Mark Harris, the man she was coming to meet, had sent her an email inquiring as to whether or not she would be amenable to having him and some friends come to the heART jam to host meetings of their own. She had initially been open to the idea, but after having Harris and his associates for a few weeks, she had become concerned that they might be trying to co-opt her project.

The door opened to reveal a young woman Veronica did not recognize. The two climbed the narrow stairs to the house’s third floor while eerie elevator music emanated from an unseen speaker. Reaching the top of the stairs, Veronica was directed to sit in a chair across a table strewn with lit tea candles opposite Harris and a second unknown person. The woman who let her in sat behind her next to a wall-mounted television displaying a large red letter “T” stamped within a triangle in a circle.


The bizarre appointment was short-lived. Veronica left visibly disturbed by the strange pomp and circumstance her hosts had generated for the occasion and stayed only long enough to tell them that they would no longer be welcome at the church on Thursdays.

Over the course of the past two years, conversations in dark and smoky rooms between Harris and a group of eclectic acolytes have given birth to a shadowy organization calling itself the Toronto Group and its undergirding philosophy, Blatantism. Inspired in part by the success of artistic and social movements from the past, as well as a recognition of the pervasive and destructive influence of consumerism in artistic culture, Harris and his Toronto Group have apparently set out to subvert the art world.

Since the falling out with Veronica and the Sacred heART Jam, the Toronto Group has been meeting sporadically, almost never in the same place, to discuss and execute their plans. Each of the handouts that are distributed to those who attend their meetings — a group of eccentric artists, thinkers, and surrealists — include a short paragraph: “The purpose of the meeting is to establish a community. The purpose of the community is to host meetings. By participating in the community we can feel part of something larger than ourselves, and we can create collective will and collective action.”


Meetings of the group are difficult to describe in reasonable terms, but this is decidedly how the group wants it. During a late January event hosted, ironically, at the 8-11 Gallery on Spadina, roughly 15 perplexed and intrigued guests listened as Harris, the de-facto leader of the group, launched into what amounted to a series of answers to frequently asked questions.

Rhetorically, Harris asks whether or not the group is a cult, eliciting wry smiles from those in the know and nervous chuckles from newcomers. He reads a stock definition of cults from his notes and concedes that insofar as Blatantism and the Toronto Group are “a religious or social group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices,” then yes, the organization is undoubtedly a cult.

Suppose that movements, such as Dadaism from the early twentieth century, and their resultant cultural ripples, did not occur organically, but were rather the result of a long and meticulously planned conspiracy. This is what Blatantism is at its core.

Despite being shrouded in an impenetrable oddness, a sheet of paper bearing the title “So you want to be a Blatantist…” included in the handouts distributed at every meeting actually does quite a succinct job of explaining the movement’s raison d’être.


The directives offered to those looking to participate encourage them to “tell a story that provokes and confuses the general public,” with a view to infiltrating the “‘art world’ under self-composed fanfare.” They are further pushed to “build a community around unknown principles that serve as a pedestal and function as a pulpit for those who built the community.”

Blatantism is both method and product. It is the performativity of baseless absurdity designed to generate a buzz about itself. The bizarre content of its meetings, which have included readings from the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, original poems, and manifestos, as well as the Toronto Group itself, exist only to perpetuate the movement.

Mark and his Toronto Group are creating a cultural phenomenon through a piece of performance art in the form of a pseudo-cult to further the artistic merit of its followers, and thereby increase the value of their work individually. By collecting members, spreading the word, and growing, they pull the accomplishments of others in to the mix to justify the organizers. In effect and structure, Blatantism is an art pyramid scheme.

Ultimately, however, Blatantism does not exist in reality despite the fact that it can be interacted with. It is, from a macro perspective, a piece of art itself. Having seen absurdity in the way art is created, marketed, appraised, and sold, Harris and the Blatantists are reflecting absurdity back at the art world in hopes of joining its ranks.

A small pink booklet titled “Sweet Talk Gets Harder: Blatantism for Beginners” — a manifesto presented at the most recent meeting — includes the following explanation: “Blatantism is the true university of imagination. We’re what’s around you, blatantly. We are what you are made of. We will only change the world by changing our images blatantly. We believe that a concept is useless if not followed by an action. An image in the minds is no good if not manifested in the material world thru some medium whether openly or in secret.”

While people are attending and presenting at meetings, striking “culture jamming” committees, and raising money for an art centre in Nepal — the design for which was created by a Mexican architect Harris met on Tinder — Blatantism is working.


Editor’s note (February 26, 2015): “Sweet Talk Gets Harder: Blatantism for Beginners” was written by Neal Armstrong.

On the move

Alexander Marshall, a third-year student at Woodsworth College, checked his Facebook to find an unexpected message waiting in his inbox. It was from a former classmate whom he had known years before when the two were attending an international school in Bordeaux, France. Included with the message was a photo of Marshall as a young boy with a group of other children.

“She asked me, ‘is this you? I haven’t seen you for about 10 or 11 years!’” he recounts. The message went on to say: “I remember your name. I still have a picture of you.”

Serendipitously, as it turns out, she was once again a classmate of Marshall’s — this time at the Univeristy of Toronto, hundreds of thousands of miles from where they had first met.

Depictions of reunion in film and television are often dramatic scenes marked by a swelling orchestral score as one character’s eyes meet another’s across a crowd. This particular reunion, despite a lack of a background score, was in many ways as implausible as something out of a cinema.

Hailing from places as far-flung as Iran or Brazil, or as a familiar as the US, U of T’s international student body — which, at 10,276 people, makes up 15.3 per cent of the total undergraduate population — represents a broad diversity of experiences. Individuals who grew up in a culture that is not their parents’ for a signifiant portion of their childhood years are called “third culture kids.”

The world is undoubtedly expansive and would not seem to lend itself well to intersecting paths on a mass scale. Yet, if mapped out across time and space, individual lives cross and connect with more frequency than could be imagined.


Marshall was born in Chicago to a British father and Norwegian mother, though he only stayed in the US for a matter of months before getting on a plane bound for Holland as a baby. It was the first in a series of moves tranversing both oceans that would take him to France, India, Shanghai, England, Hong Kong, and finally, Canada.

The extent to which Marshall seems to find himself stumbling in and out of relations with former acquaintances is staggering. 

Though they were never particularly close, Marshall and Steve Shi, a third-year Rotman Commerce student, had also met before they ran into one another through a mutual friend on Bloor Street last year.

Shi, who was born in Vancouver in 1994, is the son of Chinese civil engineers who had found work in Canada. He left Vancouver quite young for Singapore before continuing on to Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Like Marshall, whose father is an international commodities trader, Shi’s father was also the catalyst for transplanting the family over the years. “Every time he found a better opportunity, he would just go for it. I don’t think he was concerned about moving too much,” he says. 

Shi admits that the pace of travel throughout his childhood impacts his recollection. “It’s kind of hazy, to be honest,” he says of recounting his childhood years and the many temporary locations. 

It was in Shanghai that Shi attended an American international school while his brother attended the British international school with Marshall. 


Another expat, Jerome Newton, a fourth-year student at Trinity College, was born in the UK in a small town of less than 100,000 called Southport, about a 40-minute drive from Liverpool. But he has spent relatively little time in his country of birth — making “home” a rather challenging concept to articulate. 

As a word, “home” bears all kinds of subjective significance, especially for someone who has spent most of their life in international transit. “I suppose home would always have to be where my parents lived,” Newton responds after careful consideration. “Home changes all the time it’s not the UK anymore, and it hasn’t been for many, many years,” he adds. 

Like many of the university’s international students, most of his younger years were spent travelling, following his family from place to place, continent to continent. His father’s job has required constant relocation and meant that, growing up, Newton was only ever able to spend three to four years in a single country.

Newton explains that the constant movement quickly became a part of his identity, particularly in his love of travel. “I find it comforting to travel,” he says. 

Before arriving in Toronto in the fall of 2011, Newton had spent short blocks of time in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore, where he graduated from high school at the United World College of South East Asia. 


Ironically, it would be Marshall, now one of Newton’s roommates on campus, who would provide the initial social link between the displaced Brit and another globetrotting student named Jamieson Wang, also The Varsity’s video editor. 

Wang’s family left Tokyo before she was born, returning to her mother’s native Singapore so that their daughter could claim citizenship. Like both Newton and Marshall,  she spent little time in her birthplace before moving. Her father works for Singapore Airlines, which has required him to shuttle between sales offices across Asia during Wang’s childhood. 

Change was a constant fixture in her life, even during periods where her family was settled. She described the experience of international school as perpetually in flux. “Having new kids every year was so common, and having your friends leave every year was so common,” she says. 

“I got used to [moving] very quickly,” she adds, “I kind of knew that it was what I had to do.”

She attended schools in Japan, Indonesia, South Africa, Spain, and finally returned to Singapore to graduate from the Overseas Family School. 

Wang and Marshall met during his frosh week in 2012, when she and Newton — yet to be introduced — were  already in their second years at U of T. Though she would not meet Newton through Marshall until 2013, the two were separated by only eight kilometres for a year in 2009 when he was down the road at United World College. 

It was in Japan at the Nagoya International School (NIS) that Wang crossed paths with third-year student Yukari Kosaka. Unlike the others, Kosaka stayed at NIS from pre-school as a toddler through to high school. “It was a tiny, tiny school, probably around 300 from preschool to high school, and I graduated in a class of 17 students,” she describes. 

Jamieson Wang & Yukari Kosaka. RUSABA ALAM/THE VARSITY

Wang was not in that graduating class; nevertheless, the two recognized one another when, years later, Kosaka enrolled at Woodsworth College. Across continents, this small group of people has managed to bump into one another time and again, and inevitably coalesce at U of T — but having engaged in so many communities, knowing others across the globe is normal for these students. While this repeated shifting can be polarizing, for many internationals, the act of moving has become an important constant in their lives. 

Rachel Hillcoat, a political science and international relations student enrolled at University College and former classmate of Kosaka and Wang, was born in Canada but moved with her family to Japan shortly after. She describes experiencing a sense of disparity between her cultural identities. She hopes to eventually find a career that allows her to move around a lot, ideally between her two homes in Canada and Japan.

“Probably because of my upbringing, I definitely see myself moving around a lot in the future,” she says, adding, “I don’t think I could ever stay in one place my whole life.”

Advice to first-years

President Meric Gertler

“Welcome to the University of Toronto! My advice to incoming students would be to step out of your comfort zone when considering what courses to pursue, and take some risks as a way to develop both breadth and depth of knowledge. And whether you are new to Toronto or born and raised here, I would also suggest you experience the city as a valuable part of your education.”

Dean of Arts & Science David Cameron

“Starting university is such an exciting time in your life but we know it can be a bit overwhelming as well. Please remember there are people whose job is to help you. Take advantage of their expertise. For Arts & Science students, the best “first stop” when you need advice and assistance is always your college registrar.”

ASSU President Abdullah Shihipar

“Get involved early. You’re definitely here to learn, but by getting involved you get to meet so many diverse people at U of T and learn so many things. You’ll have a support system and you’ll learn to balance multiple commitments. Learning happens inside and outside the classroom and to get the most out of a diverse place like U of T, you’ll have to do both.”

Political Science Professor Dr. Simone Chambers

“Join, create, curate face-to-face study groups. Take my word for it; this will make a huge difference to your undergraduate experience on all sorts of dimensions.”

Sociology Professor Dr. Christian Caron

“Learning should be a social enterprise, not pursued alone, so in your courses seek out colleagues and learn with them. Your university experiences will be far richer for it.”

APSS President Emily Tsui

“Get involved, but don’t forget academics, friends, and family.”

ENGSOC President Teresa Nguyen

“Everyone has an amazing story to share (and I have found this especially so here at U of T), so take the time to listen and you might learn a thing or two!”

Astronomy Professor Dr. Michael Reid

“For your major, find a subject that you’re excited to learn about every day; in the long run, that passion for learning will serve you better than a “marketable” degree.”

Psychology Professor Dr. Dan Dolderman

“Seek wisdom, face fear, practice compassion.”

Cell and Systems Biology Professor Dr. Kenneth Yip

“Have big dreams (not during class).”

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor Dr. James D. Thomson

“Devour readings, study syllabi, attend tutorials.”

Mathematics professor Dr. Anthony Lam

“Every student has a unique learning technique.”


Pressed suits, polished smiles

In 1956, as he was racing towards a second straight loss to Dwight D. Eisenhower at America’s polls, Adlai E. Stevenson offered up one of his characteristically insightful thoughts on the nature of campaigning. The chronically underachieving presidential hopeful was recorded saying: “I’m not an old, experienced hand at politics. But I am now seasoned enough to have learned that the hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.” Truer words may have never been spoken by an honest person thrust into the deeply dishonest arena of politics.


The nature of political campaigning has changed a lot since Stevenson’s back-to-back losses to Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, and again in 1960, when he lost the Democratic Party nomination to a handsome young senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy. Nevertheless, Stevenson’s message carries hints of prescience.

How political candidates choose to present themselves has become a more calculated science as time has gone on. Consultants have come out of the woodwork to tweak and perfect every aspect of a candidate’s public image, from the colour of her ties to the content of her speeches. The organization and logistics of running a modern political campaign are staggering. The amount of time; effort; and, increasingly, money, that are required to get a candidate out of the gate complicate the process. With so much at stake, it is not difficult to understand the vague promises and glad-handing on the part of would-be representatives looking to distinguish themselves.

It would be an oversimplification and, ironically, dishonest of me to suggest that all politicians are liars, or that campaigning is fundamentally corrupt. Nevertheless, there are definitely threads worth pulling at: there is a fair bit of misrepresentation and showmanship that goes into any campaign. Plans must be presented moderately, experience must be conveyed modestly, suits pressed, and smiles polished. Opportunities to attack a competitor on her record or to charm a specific demographic make campaigns a drawn-out and twisted popularity contest rather than a competition of ideas. Too often, salient points are lost under the glaring lights of campaign stumps and in the deafening cheers of supportive crowds.

Take, for example, the tried and true methods political candidates employ. Appeals to a vague notion of a national narrative; simple, down-home values; and other attempts at authenticity are typical. We exist in a paradigm characterized by mistrust of public figures and the media outlets that report on them. Every slogan, campaign promise, and headline is perceived through a cynical lens, searching for an inkling of bias or mistruth.

Jason Stanley of The New York Times argues that such a paradigm completely undermines “the possibility of straightforward communication in the public sphere.” So then, what are we left with? The incorruptible messages of family values, patriotism, and progress are hardly worth writing home about. The result is a political sphere lacking in earnestness, where the adequacy of potential leaders is sold to the public from behind a mask.

There are, however, a number of aggravating factors exerting themselves on the electoral process in addition to the general apathy of a suspicious public. Little doubt remains about the corrupting influence that money in the form of campaign donations has on respectable and genuine politics, if such a thing exists. Special interests, with considerable pocket books, are making their presence known through financial gifts. The inherent issue of increased political donations is one of accountability: when the costs of national campaigns are rising every year, and candidates are being forced to accept more money to stay competitive, the possibility of those with money exerting undue influence over policy becomes a legitimate concern.

This situation raises questions about the realities of electoral democracy if politicians are in some way beholden to private interests for money to run successful campaigns. US President Barack Obama summed up the issue perfectly in his remarks during the most recent State of the Union address. Speaking on his administration’s attempts to patch the holes in the country’s Voting Rights Act, Obama said: “It should be the power of our vote, not the size of our bank account, that drives our democracy.” Though it was a fleeting moment, the weathered president hit the nail on the head.

Every slogan, campaign promise, and headline is perceived through a cynical lens, searching for an inkling of bias or mistruth. The result is a political sphere lacking in earnestness, where the adequacy of potential leaders is sold to the public from behind a mask.

New legislation and changes in legal interpretation in Canada and the United States are striking deep into the core of the issue. The federal Conservative government is doing away with Canada’s per-vote subsidy, a mechanism put in place to allocate Canadian tax dollars to federal political parties according to their popular support in past elections. While the per-vote subsidy only represents a third of the total amount of money flowing into political parties on the federal level in Canada, the move has many journalists speculating as to how the parties will make up for the lost revenue. Some, including the National Post’s John Ivison, have suggested that the government’s recently proposed Fair Elections Act — legislation expected to increase the amount of money Canadians can donate to political parties, among other policies — is a direct response to the changing subsidy.

It is imperative that Canada looks to the current situation in the United States — as it so often does — to see the effects of money on politics. We are far from a watershed moment similar to the United States
Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, but we should be wary of how money drives our democracy in the Great White North. The influence it wields is nothing less than pollution — tolerable in so far as it is here to stay, but disastrous if left unguarded.

Stevenson’s remarks foretold what we now know to be true: any politician willing to do what is necessary to win an election — whether it is making promises in exchange for cash, doubling back on their positions, or lying about their records — may not be worthy of their prize.

Mark Twain is often credited with popularizing the saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Twain himself would attribute the quote to the former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. If we are to preserve our right to self-government, we must be ever vigilant against those who would use any of the three against us. We must not forget that, in our politics, the electorate are price-makers dictating effective strategies to potential political suitors. We must hold those who would lead us to a higher standard. They will only lie as long as we let them.

Through education and skepticism, we can set a higher bar for politics, and to that end, our society. We cannot allow ourselves to be dazzled by snake-oil salesmen — but at the same time, we must not become so hardened in our cynicism towards the process that we miss the genuine article.

University is not for everyone

When my grandfather was 19 years old, he walked through the front doors of Stamford Collegiate High School in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and applied for a job. He was one of eight children, all boys, who were born and raised on a small Ontario farm during the Great Depression.

Barely out of high school himself, he was hired on the spot as a gym teacher and guidance counsellor. He would spend the rest of his adult working life at Stamford, coaching soccer and basketball. He raised two daughters, was able to purchase a new car every few years, and had a summer cottage up north to which he would eventually retire with my grandmother. My grandfather took a year-long accreditation course at McMaster University to become a guidance counsellor before going back to complete a BA once he found a paying job.

Both of his daughters went to university in Ontario, one of whom, my mother, went on to earn a doctorate degree at the University of Toronto. While her father, with no experience to speak of, was able to walk to the local high school and get a job, my mother’s working life has been complicated by changes in employers, locations, and lengthy commutes. My mother and father, in the prime of their working lives, only recently paid off the debt they incurred more than 25 years ago when they first entered university.

There are approximately 818,000 full-time undergraduates currently enrolled in classes at Canadian universities. Many of these students are contributing to the nation’s growing national student debt — which, according to the Canadian Federation of Students’ website, has long surpassed $15 billion and continues to grow. More and more students are enrolling in universities every year, university tuition rates continue to rise, and the debt keeps mounting.

The likelihood is that you will graduate from university in four or more years with some, if not significant, debt and no more employable than you would have been if you had spent those years doing something else.

In a piece on its website earlier this year, the CBC indicated that Ontario has the worst youth unemployment statistics in the country. “There is only one in two Ontarians between the ages 15 and 24 who have paid employment. What that is, is the worst numbers we’ve seen since Statscan has kept these numbers since 1976,” said Sean Geobey, a doctoral candidate in social and environmental finance at the University of Waterloo. Geobey’s research contributed to the findings covered in the article. While Canada has fortunately not experienced the same kind of economic lag that is still devastating other nations in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the country is still struggling to make up lost ground. In the city of Toronto alone, 18.1 per cent of youth are currently without paying jobs.

Amidst these discouraging statistics, the government of Ontario has been embattled with partisan platforms looking to make fundamental changes to the province’s post-secondary education system, in an attempt to better prepare the next generation’s workforce. Last year, for instance, the provincial Progressive Conservatives, led by Tim Hudak, released a white paper titled “Paths to Prosperity: Higher Learning for Better Jobs.” The controversial policy paper has been the source of much debate over the future of Ontario’s employment market since its release. The current Liberal government, under Premier Kathleen Wynne, has yet to respond with its own proposal.

There is virtue in proposing a fundamental shift in the way Canadian society thinks about post-secondary education. For decades now, a university degree has widely been considered a prerequisite to a fulfilling work life. A generation of young Canadians has been misinformed about the value of the university experience, and our economy is suffering as a result. Canadians need to stop and reconsider the purpose and reality of a university education. Unless you are enrolled in a practical discipline, like engineering or certain sciences, university is not about preparing for the working world — nor is it it about developing essential skills for employment.

The four-year-degree structure is ultimately about developing responsible, intelligent citizens. This is not to say that employers are not looking for intelligent, reasonable people — they certainly are, but it is not nearly enough. University is about developing critical thinking skills and gaining a specialized education. At the risk of sounding elitist, students dragging their feet through arts degrees, sleeping in lectures, and waiting on OSAP or other loan payments to make tuition are simply wasting their time if they think a job is waiting for them.

Year after year, a class of indebted young people is unloaded from the university system in Canada, smiling in their graduation pictures, diplomas in hand. The sad truth is that very few of these bright-eyed graduates will make a seamless transition into the working world, where their experience is relevant. A shift in society’s perception of the value of a university education must happen, and it must happen soon. A new emphasis should be placed on education in the trades and other practical skill sets. There are simply too many people in Canada today without jobs, and too many jobs without people.

The universities themselves are complicit in this crisis. As institutions admit more and more students and collect tuition fees, they devalue the degrees and certifications they grant. If the only criteria for receiving a degree are that you are able to pay and satisfy the lowest standard of achievement, then the degree is worthless. It is a simple question of supply and demand: the more BA students there are floating around the job market, the less valuable the degree becomes. Universities are doing a disservice to their students and to society as a whole if they continue to offer degrees to anyone who can pay.

Year after year, a class of indebted young people is unloaded from the university system in Canada, smiling in their graduation pictures, diplomas in hand. The sad truth is that very few of these bright-eyed graduates will make the seamless transition into the working world, where their experience is relevant. A shift in society’s perception of the value of a university education must happen, and it must happen soon. 

Universities cannot be advertised as a way station to fulfilling employment; they must be considered centres for higher learning, institutions dedicated to the development of well-rounded citizens, and that is all. The truth is, you do not need to be well-rounded to find a job in Canada right now — you need skills. You need to be able to make or fix things. There simply is not enough room in the job pool for a thousand art history majors.

Most of the change needs to take place in homes and high schools. Parents, teachers, and guidance counsellors need to reexamine the way that university is presented to students. University is expensive, it is hard, and it is not for everyone. Students need to have a sober and objective understanding of what they are getting into before they accept admission offers. It is a significant expense, either for the family or the individual, and it represents a significant opportunity cost: there will be substantial lost wages in return for your undergraduate efforts, and you will have lost time that could have been spent developing other skills or pursuing other experiences. The likelihood is that you will graduate from university in four or more years with some, if not significant, debt and no more employable than you would have been if you had spent those years doing something else.

What Ontario and Canada as a whole need now are fewer universities. We need to foster and develop institutions that provide young people with the skills they need to support themselves financially. I would personally much rather enjoy my life as a pipefitter, welder, or plumber — making a respectable wage with which I can support myself and a family — than I would working at a coffee shop, without an office wall upon which to display my degree.