All posts by Jacob Lorinc

Editor-in-Chief 2017–2018 Managing Online Editor 2016–2017 Arts & Culture Editor 2015–2016 Associate Arts & Culture Editor 2014–2015

Like a phoenix from the ashes

It’s no revelation that print media is dying. Rather, it’s the subject of most newsroom conversations, and should you forget about the Canadian media’s slow demise — if only briefly — any young journalist would be eager to remind you of it two or three times. Our media landscape, to say nothing of the one down south, has all but abandoned the physical copy of a newspaper in exchange for investments in digital output.

This has been played out through a number of painful cost-cutting methods conducted by major news outlets across the country over the last few years. In January 2016, the Toronto Star closed its printing plant in Vaughan, and it outsourced its print production to potentially increase focus on digital media. In September 2016, Rogers Media announced it would cut Maclean’s magazine from a weekly edition to a monthly edition. Earlier in 2013, The Globe and Mail cut its print edition in Newfoundland and Labrador and then, in November 2017, it extended this rollback to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. The Globe consolidated its Arts section with the News section, mixed Business with Sports, and narrowed the lengths of its pages.

Circulation among all major media outlets has dropped. Even we at The Varsity dropped our weekly circulation from 20,000 to 18,000 copies in 2017.

Here, the Charles Dickens quote no longer applies — it’s definitely not the best of times, and it’s probably the worst of times.

Dave Bidini though — pointedly not a journalist and yet the founder of a recently established local paper — isn’t having the worst of times. In fact, he’s having fun. The guitarist for the disbanded Rheostatics and a bohemian of the downtown core is now the founder of The West End Phoenix, a local monthly newspaper.

You probably haven’t heard of it, and there’s a reason for that: the West End doesn’t exist online. Its business model is antithetical to that of practically any paper in its vicinity. It’s print-only, ad-free, and cannot be found on newsstands but rather by home subscription. In place of articles, its website reads, “Thou shalt not PDF.”

The newly founded paper is not necessarily built to last — the website itself is headed with the quote, “You’re crazy, but good luck” — so it’s unsurprising, then, that when I meet with Bidini in the paper’s office, a bedroom-turned-workplace in the centenarian Gladstone Hotel on the outskirts of Parkdale, he’s knowingly tentative about the paper’s future.

“Honestly, we don’t even know if it’s going to work,” he tells me. “We have certain targets we want to meet — in terms of our subscription, in terms of our funding — [and] we may make it, it may be fantastic, [but] maybe we won’t. But we want to try.”

The paper is Bidini’s brainchild — an idea that came to mind after a visit to Yellowknife in 2015. The city’s local paper, the Yellowknifer, is akin to the purity of media prior to the digital revolution. It prints twice a week, and it is sold on the streets by kids with part-time jobs. It bears minimal online presence, existing only under the name of its parent company, Northern News Service.

When Bidini returned to Toronto from the north, he noticed an unfortunate contrast in the local papers here. “I remember one day The Villager appeared on my porch, and it was huge. But once you open it up, you realize it’s all… wrapped in flyers. All of the editorials have been gouged out — they were all bought by Metroland [Media].”

That’s when he decided to start a paper of his own. “We’re in this catchment in the west end, this amazing place in this amazing city — who’s telling the stories? I thought the opportunity existed to start a community paper that will be telling the stories of people who live here rather than it being a glorified coupon wrap,” he said.

The paper is funded primarily by subscriptions and patron supporters. Neither are cheap — a yearly subscription starts at $56.50, and the base patron donation is $200 — but it has roped in some interested buyers nonetheless. The paper has roughly 1,800 subscribers in the west end of Toronto and approximately 450 subscribers sprinkled across the rest of Canada and the world.

Bidini himself is in a unique position to take such a risk. Prior to his stint in journalism, he was known primarily as the guitarist for Candian indie rock band The Rheostatics. Bidini has since become a staple of the Canadian arts scene — a figure in the same circle as the late Gord Downie, Margaret Atwood, and other notable figures.

This status helped when forming the West End. “I was calling in every fucking favour of people I met in music [and] people I met in publishing,” says Bidini, which is why the list of major patrons on the newspaper’s second page reads like the starting lineup of Canada’s arts scene all-star team. Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, Serena Ryder, Bruce McDonald, and George Stroumboulopoulos are but few of the names listed as “major” and “founding” patrons. The paper also received starting donations from TD Bank, Blundstone Canada, and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, among others.

So why the aversion to publishing online? “Part of it is romance; part of it is nostalgia for sure,” explains Bidini. “Somebody contacted us the other day and said, ‘I’m looking for the name of the writer who did the story on tunnels for you guys,’ and my wife was like, ‘Isn’t that cool? That they had to write to us rather than find [these] names on the internet?’

Bidini dismisses the notion of the West End being anti-digital, but the obscurity of the product is certainly pointed. In some ways, the paper appears to counteract the rapid change that its geographic surroundings are experiencing. Parkdale, whose previously undesirable market value helped facilitate an influx of artists over the past two decades, is undergoing the familiar process of gentrification.

Implicitly, if not explicitly, the West End — in all its ad-free purity — appears to want to preserve the culture that some may fear is dissipating. As a paper that, for the most part, only locals know about, it lends itself to the preservation of a neighbourhood once unexposed to big business and overpriced condos. It’s not NIMBYism, but the process has stoked a collective need to preserve the old.

“By supporting the paper, you’re supporting the poet and the graphic designer, and the illustrator that lives on your street,” pitches Bidini. If the neighbourhood becomes unaffordable for the artist class, then the poets, graphic designers, and illustrators leave. And when they go, so does the heart of the neighbourhood. It becomes, as Bidini puts it, “less freaky.”

So is the project sustainable? “We’ll see,” says Bidini. “It’s an experiment. And I’d be an idiot to say it’s not a ‘can’t miss’ project.” In a media landscape that’s looking more and more like a battlefield, the success of a leisurely local is nowhere near guaranteed. But for a community trying to preserve a neighbourhood, perhaps there’s a demand.

Leafs Nation

After an impressive performance in the 1966-67 NHL season, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Larry Hillman sought a modest increase on his yearly salary. He had been earning around $15,000 at the time, but knowing that many of his teammates made significantly more, Hillman asked for no less than a $5,000 salary increase given his valuable assistance in the Leafs’ latest Stanley Cup victory.

The Leafs’ General Manager at the time, Punch Imlach, a scrappy former hockey player and WWII veteran, countered Hillman’s request and offered $19,000 instead. When Hillman declined, Imlach increased his offer to $19,500, but began deducting $100 from Hillman’s pay for every day he didn’t sign. Hillman eventually caved to the offer, but by then had lost $2,400.

Humiliated by Imlach’s negotiation tactics, Hillman left the team 55 games later to join the Minnesota North Stars, but not before bestowing a curse upon the Leafs now known as the Hillman Hex. After the way they treated him, Hillman swore, the Leafs would never win a Stanley Cup again.

So far, the curse appears to be working.

The collapse of Toronto’s hockey empire

This season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are celebrating their centennial year of existence. Founded in 1917 under the name the ‘Toronto Arenas’, Toronto became one of the first four teams to play in the NHL, along with the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators, and a short-lived franchise by the name of the Montreal Wanderers.

In 1918, the NHL team became the first to win a Stanley Cup and, subsequently, a dominant force in the increasingly popular sports league. The Leafs won three championships in a row between 1947–1949 and again between 1962–1964, eventually solidifying their legacy as the team with the second-most Stanley Cup wins behind the Montreal Canadiens.

But the glory days have since concluded.

Following the Leafs’ 1967 Stanley Cup victory, the success of the team crumbled almost instantly. In the 1967–1968 season, the Leafs failed to make a playoff spot for the first time in a decade. The franchise owner at the time — a notoriously grouchy businessman named Harold Ballard — overhauled the management team, fired the coaches despite the players’ wishes, and slowly ostracized star players that refused to comply with Ballard’s low wage offers.

Ballard then left the team after being convicted on 49 counts of fraud, theft, and tax evasion — he was sentenced to serve nine years in the Kingston Penitentiary and Millhaven Institution — but by then he had already caused enough damage to the Leafs’ standing that the remains of the team resembled a pile of rubble.

It’s been 50 years since the Leafs last won a Stanley Cup. In that time, the Montreal Canadiens have won 10 Stanley Cups, and Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s greatest player, has started and finished his career.

Disco has come and gone. Saturn has made an orbit of the sun. Biggie and Tupac have lived and died.

And the Leafs have accomplished nothing. In the last 10 years, they’ve made the playoffs only once.

The irrational optimism of the fanbase

Given the recurring failures of the Toronto franchise, we’re led to wonder how such an underwhelming team continues to attract an abundance of devoted fans. While the Leafs have been pummeled by rivals and eaten alive by mediocre expansion teams, the Air Canada Centre continues to sell out consistently. As successful as the Raptors or the Blue Jays may be, Leafs games remain by far the most lucrative. Why?

In short, the answer resides in the illogical yet unbreakable optimism of Leafs fans, invoked by a sort of recreational purgatory to which the team is seemingly forever confined.

Allow me to explain.

Statistically speaking, the Leafs aren’t the worst of the NHL’s 30 teams. In fact, the Leafs lie somewhere in the middle of the best and the worst. On average, since their playoff run in 2003–2004, the Leafs have placed eleventh out of the 15–16 teams in their conference — not good, but not bad either. The Leafs usually land within one or two spots of making the playoffs, barely missing the cutoff.

This, however, is the worst possible scenario for a hockey team. In the NHL, being statistically mediocre is actually worse than being the worst. This is because, while the teams that perform best in a season are rewarded with a playoff run, the teams that perform worst in a season are rewarded with a better chance of acquiring a first or second round draft pick the following season.

This leaves the teams that finish in the middle struggling the most, as they don’t have a team strong enough to make the playoffs, nor one that’s weak enough to be compensated with better draft picks. In a nutshell, this is why the Leafs keep sucking.

But this is also why Leafs fans are left in a perpetual state of cautious optimism. To be mediocre in the NHL means that the mediocre team must demonstrate at least some strength prior to self-destruction, and it’s that demonstration of strength that gives Leafs fans hope.

This manifests itself in the trajectory of a Leafs season. While the team often performs admirably at the start of any given season — in turn, drumming up support from a rabid fan-base — the Leafs are prone to devolving into infamous, full-blown breakdowns midway through the season.

In turn, the Leafs cope with their losses by entering what’s commonly known in Toronto as a ‘rebuilding year.’ This is where the team rids themselves of their current management and, hopefully, the bad habits they picked up along the way. But the rebuilding years have had little success, as demonstrated by the four coaches and four general managers that the team has let go in the past 10 years.

Nonetheless, the rebuilding years are Leafs fans’ perfect fodder for false optimism. During every year that the team rebuilds, they recruit new household names that give Leafs fans something to talk about. In 2005, it was former star Eric Lindros; in 2006, it was goaltending-hopeful Andrew Raycroft; in 2008, it was General Manager Cliff Fletcher; and in 2009, it was Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. Each aforementioned name entered Leafs Nation with extraordinarily high expectations from Leafs fans and each proved incapable of meeting them.

Which brings us to this season.

Like every other season for the past 10 years, the 2016–2017 season has been conveniently labelled a rebuilding year, with much of the same characteristics. Old managers and coaches have been swapped for new ones. The team roster has been remoulded significantly. A first-round draft pick — Auston Matthews — has been added to the lineup along with hometown kid Mitch Marner, the prior year’s fourth round overall draft pick. As usual, Leafs fans have been gifted with a familiar reason for hope.

But perhaps there’s another reason to restore our collective faith in the Leafs.

On the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Hillman Hex, Hillman was asked if he would ever lift the curse he had burdened his former team with so many years ago. Hillman, who by then had ample time to cool off, said yes, but not yet. Only after 50 years, he said, would the curse be lifted officially.

This year, we celebrate 50 years of the Hillman Hex.

Eliminating the spectacle of political campaigns

[dropcap]I’VE[/dropcap]  never watched Game of Thrones, but if I did, I figure it would look something like the February 13th Republican primary debate: politically chaotic, and distinctly medieval.

Maybe it was because of the red backdrop, or the look in Donald Trump’s eyes when slandering Jeb Bush, but something about that debate was eerily reminiscent of a more primitive period in human existence.

Apparently, others would disagree; something about Donald Trump and other loud-mouthed Republicans have captivated a fair portion of the American electorate. Their speeches lack any conceivable substance, and their credentials lack any prior political experience, but when narrowing the scope of their careers down to the performances they deliver onstage, even a thuggish business tycoon and a retired neurosurgeon can convince people that they deserve to be commander-in-chief.

It’s unsurprising, then, that U of T political science professor Ryan Hurl feels we’d be better off without the ability to visualize our political candidates. No more televised debates. No more political pep-rallies in Alabama hayfields. There would be no way of gauging a politician’s physical features or charismatic qualities until they’ve been elected to office. All we’d be left with are their names and political platforms delivered through radio or written word.

It paints quite the hypothetical: one that only a devoted political scientist would actually spend time thinking about, and one that’s difficult to refute. Imagine listening to Justin Trudeau discuss immigration policy over the radio without the faintest idea of what he looks like. How can we trust him? How do we know he’s not just a robot with a culturally ambiguous accent?

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are ones that we mostly derive from a candidate’s appearance. But that’s Hurl’s point. Physical appearance and charismatic qualities cloud our perception of political candidates. They allow us to form critical decisions around aspects of a candidate that don’t pertain to the job we’re electing them to do, and — considering the pseudo-Civil War partaking across the border — that’s a problem.

“When you have this face-to-face politics, it almost short-circuits the civilized, cultural aspects of our consciousness, and has the potential to tap into the deep evolutionary elements of how we respond to certain leaders,” Hurl says. “If this were a hundred-thousand years ago and we were deciding who’s going to be leader of the tribe in some primeval forest, then yes, quite possibly you’re going to be attracted to the person who’s bigger, stronger, and has more energy. The idea here is that modern technology — in a way — connects to some of those more primitive elements of human consciousness that we’re not always aware of.”


It would be hard to qualify a ‘golden era’ of politics in the west, but there’s something to be said for the time prior to the influx of modern technology, when physical attributes  — within the privileged group of Caucasian males that comprised the political class — did not play a major role in determining political status.

Hurl cites James Madison, co-author of the United States Constitution and fourth President of the United States, as an example. “In the nineteenth century in the United States, not many people could know that James Madison was a tiny little man who isn’t a very good public speaker… This is one way of thinking about it: James Madison, the tiny man with the squeaky, unattractive voice, could never be a leading politician now, or it seems unlikely.”

In fact, political scientists can pinpoint the exact date when unattractive politicians like Madison had their chances of winning elections squandered. September 26, 1960 was the date of the very first televised debate in a US presidential election, and it permanently changed the way voters perceived presidential nominees.

The debate was between republican nominee Richard Nixon and democratic nominee John F. Kennedy. At the time, the two politicians had relatively similar policies — increased health aid for older citizens, heightened national security measures, and promises to pummel the Soviet Union into oblivion if necessary. What differed, however, was the way the nominees relayed this information. Nixon had just recovered from a bad knee injury, and spent the debate hunched onto one side, scowling at the live audience while humoring a few questions. Kennedy, on the other hand, stood with impeccable posture.

He smiled when asked questions, and looked directly into the camera while answering them.

As Hurl points out, those watching the debate on television thought that Kennedy won the debate, while those listening on the radio thought that Nixon won. What may have swayed voters in that election were Kennedy’s good looks and charismatic presence. “In many cases, elections are won by winning over people who don’t necessarily have the greatest amount of political consciousness — aren’t paying the most attention to politics — so those are the people that can potentially be swayed by things as irrelevant as how pretty or handsome… the candidate [is],” Hurl explains.

There are some arguments against hiding our politicians from the public eye, though. “You can increase… the rationality of decision-making, but it would be at the cost of radically reducing the scope of participation,” Hurl points out. Theoretically, removing politicians from the public eye would force the electorate to make more policy-based decisions, but less of the electorate would likely be willing to engage in the process. “If you eliminate the spectacle aspect of politics, you’re going to eliminate the scope of participation.”

Yet, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. In a democracy, you can’t be too stupid to vote, but votes from the less politically-engaged often equate to less-informed choices. If the only thing voters knew about Donald Trump were his policies — namely, building walls, killing terrorists’ families, and so on — then perhaps his support, which thrives on massive rallies and active participation in ‘Trump-mania’ would weaken.

Despite all this, Hurl reminds me that regardless of how attractive your local candidate is, most voters have already made their decisions long before campaigning is underway. In the US some people will always vote republican, and some people will always vote democrat.

Between deep-rooted partisanship and votes based on charisma and physical characteristics, I can’t decide which I find scarier.

The good, the bad, and the artist

Leni Riefenstahl knew her angles. She knew exactly how to frame her shots, how to capture her preferred lighting, and how to create a devastatingly dramatic effect by way of cinematic arrangement. She spent the better part of her career in Germany during the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, before her work would go on to become celebrated internationally. According to film scholar Mark Cousins, “next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Leni Riefenstahl was the most technically talented filmmaker of her era.”

If you ask film critic Gary Morris, Riefenstahl was “an artist of unparalleled gifts, a woman in an industry dominated by men, one of the great formalists of the cinema on a par with Einstein.” Riefenstahl died at 101 years of age in 2003, but praise for her work lives on. Her legacy has endured throughout the twentieth century, and her art continues to inspire photographers and filmmakers alike.

Leni Riefenstahl was also a Nazi. In the early 1930’s, Riefenstahl developed a friendly relationship with Adolf Hitler, and before long, was commissioned to create a series of propaganda films for the Nazi Party. Through funding from Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s minister of propaganda, Riefenstahl created The Victory Of Faith, shortly followed by Triumph Of The Will, an hour-and-a-half long documentary about the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg. Riefenstahl later denied having knowledge of the film’s intent, but her close involvement with the party strongly suggested otherwise. In a report from The Detroit News she was quoted saying, “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time so possessed of masculine strength.”

So, how might a Nazi become a widely celebrated artist? It’s a legitimate question, and not an easy one to answer. Apart from the fact that the Nazis were well-known art-haters, they were also Nazis; intuitively, there is no reason to celebrate a Nazi for anything. But Riefenstahl is a fascinating exception. Her love for the Third Reich certainly doesn’t lessen her technical capabilities, but whether she deserves international acclaim for her artwork is a very different question.

The art world, as you’ve probably noticed, is lousy with awful people. Riefenstahl, while certainly unfavorable, is arguably not the worst among them. The list of bad people who make good art is extensive, which forces you to question whether the two components are interconnected, and if their misdoings are a byproduct of their own creative brilliance. Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year old cousin; Roman Polanski is said to have raped a 13-year old girl; Mark Wahlberg beat and racially abused a Vietnamese man; and Snoop Dogg faced a charge for murder. Oh, and Riefenstahl isn’t the only anti-Semite in the art world, either; she’s accompanied by Richard Wagner, Mel Gibson, Walt Disney, T.S. Elliot, Coco Chanel, and a crusade’s worth of others. Ultimately, if it weren’t for fame, wealth, and a few other systemic variables, these transgressors would ­— or should — be sitting in their local penitentiaries, and Chuck Berry would likely be stationed in solitary confinement.

Questions then turn to the artist’s perceived legacy. Artists like Riefenstahl and Wagner are not simply bad people who also happened to make decent art, they’re bad people who happened to be artistic geniuses; their art is integral to our understanding of their respective art forms, and without them, we would have a vastly altered version of their fields.

Professor John Haines teaches musicology at U of T, with a specific focus on medieval studies. His written works range from music during the Middle Ages, to popular music more broadly. Recently, Haines led a course on musical scores in film. He pointed out that when he teaches the course, it is integral that he note the importance of Richard Wagner’s compositions in his lectures. “If you listen to his music, it’s an acquired taste,” Haines explained. “It’s difficult to get into. But there’s no question to me that his music is great music, and is worthy of study regardless of what his personal life was like. To a certain extent, we have to be able to separate that.”

Wagner, who once wrote that his “long suppressed resentment against Jewish Business” was “as necessary to [him] as gall is to the blood,” was also the inventor of the ‘leitmotif,’ an incredibly influential element of music that serves the purpose of associating a short musical phrase with a person, place, or idea. It is a concept used frequently in films.

For instance: the Darth Vader entrance music in Star Wars is a leitmotif. The majestic trumpets that sound off when Indiana Jones escapes the Temple of Doom is also a leitmotif. In fact, one could argue that the marimba tone that plays on your iPhone alarm every morning is a leitmotif as well. Arguably, the first thing you hear every morning before you get out of bed is the invention of Hitler’s favorite anti-Semitic composer. Chew on that the next time you wake up.

Still, “a lot depends on the extent to which the artist’s unsavoury views have registered within the artwork,” said Ellen Lockhart, associate professor of musicology at the Faculty of Music. “If they really can’t be overlooked or forgotten for any considerable stretch, then that art is unlikely to inspire audience affection beyond its original time and place.” These notions apply to Wagner, whose anti-Semitism doesn’t really factor into his work, but whose music has stood the test of time. That being said, this fails to justify the success of Leni Riefenstahl, whose most famous works feature a young Adolf Hitler giving the Nazi salute in front of a million German people at a Nazi rally.

Haines and Lockhart are intent on separating these artists from their work, largely in order to appreciate the artwork without validating the artist’s personal actions. “Can I love Wagner’s The Meistersingers of Nuremberg and still be a good person? Of course,” explained Lockhart. “But I have no interest in celebrating these artists as people. Let’s put it this way: Wagner’s operas are on my shelves and in my DVD player, but his picture isn’t on my wall, and I make no pilgrimages to his hometown.”

Here art our presidents

One of the best ways to get acquainted with U of T is to join one of the many clubs that all three campuses offer. Whatever floats your boat — be it dancing, arguing, or beekeeping — you’re likely to find a club for it here. Four of our campuses club execs tell us how they went from nervous freshman to successful club leaders, and how you can get involved too. 

U of T Drama Coalition

The coalition itself encompasses the entirety of the tri-campus drama societies -— from college-based groups to independent productions. Your best bet to get involved will be through one of the university’s many theatre productions.

Liz McLoughlin has been involved with U of T theatre since her first year, and took up acting when she was only seven years old. Now, she’s the president of the U of T drama coalition, and she is looking forward to a productive year of student theatre.

Courtesy of Liz Mcloughlin.
Courtesy of Liz Mcloughlin.

How can you get involved with the U of T drama coalition?

LM: “The most direct way to get involved with the drama coalition as a first-year would be to get involved with the festival that we do each year; it’s a huge festival — student run, student produced, student written, and student acted. Students can either get involved with acting or working backstage.”

Why would you recommend getting involved with arts-related clubs at U of T?

LM: “If you’ve already been involved in theatre, it’s an extension and way to grow. As someone who’s been doing theatre for a long time, I felt myself challenged more thAn I’ve ever been; I worked with some of the best artists and best directors I’ve ever met in my entire life here. If you’re new to the city, it’s a great way to expand your horizons, too.”

Silhouettes Dance Company

Silhouettes, or SDC, holds year-round free shows, annual recitals at the semi-swanky Revival Bar, and many opportunities to choreograph your own work with your fellow dancers. There’s no competition of any kind, and anyone can get involved.

Aleksandra Holownia and Anais Loewen-Young, SDC’s artistic directors, have been involved with the company for three years and five years respectively, and they have come to know the Silhouettes Dance Company as “a really big family”.

Holownia, Aleksandra
Aleksandra Holownia. Courtesy of Aleksandra Holownia.
Loewen-Young, Anais
Anais Loewen-Young. Courtesy of Anais Loewen-Young.

What made you want to get involved with the Silhouettes Dance Company?

AH: “I grew up dancing, and so when I came to U of T from British Colombia, I knew nothing about U of T at all. [In second year,] I was a frosh leader at Victoria College, and people I knew through that were in SDC, which is how I first learned about the company.”

How can you get involved with SDC?

AH: “We try to advertise as much as we can before frosh week, so we go to club fairs and have a website that we can use to promote ourselves. People can also email us, and we’ll let them know about auditions. But anyone can come; we don’t set the bar ridiculously high.”

Why would you recommend getting involved with arts-related clubs at U of T?

ALY: “As a science student, I find that I need the Arts because it helps me think differently, and separates me from other science students.”

AH: “It’s a matter of getting the courage to go and find something, which can be hard, but it’s really worth it. The people at your college can be great, but it’s worthwhile to see what else U of T has to offer.”

Cinema Studies Student Union (CINSSU)

Your prized possession in high school was a Super 8 film camera, you’re in a committed relationship with Netflix, and you can recite the entirety of The Big Lebowski in your sleep. Why not join CINSSU? The film club/students union is home to the friendliest film geeks on campus, and is a great place for you to unleash all the movie-trivia that’s been pent up inside your brain these past few years.

Erin Ray is this year’s in-coming CINSSU president, and ais hoping to continue the long-standing tradition of free friday films, as well as expand its on-campus filmmaking competition to both UTM and UTSC. 

Erin Ray.
Erin Ray. Courtesy of Erin Ray.

What made you want to get involved with CINSSU?

ER: “I took a year off after high school to work, so I had to defer my acceptance to U of T. When I came to U of T the next year, all my courses were just general courses and I really didn’t enjoy any of it, which is when I realized that realistically my passion is film, so why wasn’t I taking any film courses? I also had a lot of friends in CINSSU already, and they were all talking about it so I was always interested in getting involved in some way.”

How can you get involved?

ER: “Come to the meetings. They’re open to every cinema studies student on campus, and we have a lot of volunteer opportunities, because not only do we try to host many academic and non academic events, but we also have a lot of sneak-preview events where we need rush line helpers, concession stand helpers, and so on.”

Why would you recommend getting involved with arts related clubs at U of T?

ER: “In my first year I had a horrible time making friends… so getting involved with CINSSU and getting involved with the community, I found that I was able to meet like-minded people and have a space where I could talk freely about film. And it’s great not just for friendship, but also for your own personal development.”

Singing in solidarity

A Tribe Called Red found themselves pitted against their predominantly Caucasian fan base as they stepped onto the stage at the Electric Forest Festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was the summer of 2013, and a disturbingly large portion of the audience was wearing Native American headdresses in an unsuccessful attempt to integrate with the show’s Indigenous themes. Those responsible for playing “Indian” dress-up seemed unaware of their obvious racism in doing so, and, in the process, managed to take a step backwards in the uphill climb that is race relations for Indigenous people in North America. Collectively, we cringed.

A Tribe Called Red is a Canadian EDM collective that consists of three members, all of whom are of Aboriginal descent. They are one of many Indigenous musical acts that have been politically outspoken in their music, and have joined forces with Idle No More and other political movements to help bring some resolution to the Aboriginal situation in Canada and the United States.

The genesis of Indigenous protest in music seems to come from artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree singer/songwriter active in the latter half of the twentieth century, but is neatly summed up in five minutes by a former Indigenous hip-hop trio from the late ’90s called War Party. One of their most popular songs, “Feeling Reserved,” spells out their struggle and responsibility to take action in the song’s chorus: “I’m feeling reserved/Man, that’s how I’m living/I’ve gotta do with this mic I’ve been given/To try to get by, no word of a lie/We’ve got to try to restore pride.” It’s a fantastic song, stringing politically conscious lyrics over a slow and steady groove, allowing the listener ample time to revel in the song’s medley of political and melodic ingredients.

War Party’s thought-provoking song is a staple of what we can call “protest music” for Indigenous peoples, and the same goes for the works of Buffy Sainte-Marie and A Tribe Called Red. These Indigenous artists, though,  are a small sample of the long history of protest music in popular culture. Professor Joshua Pilzer, who teaches a course entitled “Survivor’s Music” for the U of T Faculty of Music, provides some context for the origins of expressing political discontent through music.  “The idea of music as protest is very old,” says Pilzer. “Much classical and religious thought, from East Asia to Greece to the Middle East, has long held that music expresses a moral order and in other words, the right relations between tones and instruments is an expression of the way things should be organized in society in general.”

Looking back at past political movements by marginalized groups of people, music can be seen as playing a significant role in their various forms of demonstration. The African-American Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, for example, was accompanied by artists such as Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin, and Curtis Mayfield, all of whom incorporated the ideology of the movement into their music in order to help further its reach. Later on, during the third-wave feminist movement of the ’90s, bands like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill helped to develop a sub-genre of punk music known as “Riot Grrrls,” a genre which allowed for these musicians to be openly vocal about women’s rights in North America.

Nowadays, artists such as Pussy Riot, D’Angelo, and plenty of others are creating music to represent each of their respective revolutions. Look at any uprising of an oppressed group of people, and you’re bound to find a soundtrack as an accompaniment. This begs the question as to why music is so often used as a medium to express problems within our society. Why not protest through public speeches and gatherings, where you’re open to the public eye and guaranteed attention from the media?

According to Pilzer, much of this has to do with the creative freedom that comes with making music. “Music, conceived of as a form of entertainment, is often thought of as relatively harmless or unimportant,” he says, continuing, “So rather than speech, which is often closely monitored by states and people in power, music, in a way, is less policed. Oftentimes people make music intentionally designed to sound happy while expressing political and other kinds of criticism, so that only the initiated know about the critique. In this way, music can placate people in power while serving as a medium for political foment.”

While plenty of protest music is created with these sorts of tactics to guide them, many musicians simply speak their minds, candidly and without any sorts of boundaries or guidelines. In a 2012 interview, Sainte-Marie talks about her politically driven song “Universal Soldier” and how she went about writing it.

“Universal Soldier was just an artist speaking the obvious,” she says. “It’s obvious that we are responsible for the world we live in, so how can you give that [song] to people in a way that will motivate them instead of turn them off?”

Pilzer suggests that music’s ability to motivate and move groups of people, especially in the context of folk music from the time of Sainte-Marie, has to do with “taking music out of the exclusive hands of professional [musicians], and returning it to ordinary people.” This kind of audience-inclusive music is exemplified in songs like “Give Peace a Chance” by The Plastic Ono Band, or even “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy — both of which feature easy-to-remember choruses that send a clear message to those listening.

As A Tribe Called Red experienced, the primary obstacle that protest music faces is the inevitable backlash that accompanies it, whether intentional or not. For musicians like John Lennon and Public Enemy, the backlash was extreme and resulted in violence and discord between demonstrators and authorities; for A Tribe Called Red, however, the fake Indigenous headdresses were discomforting rather than provocative.

Luckily, there’s a constructive way of looking at these situations. According to Pilzer, we can learn from reactions like these and use them to help fine-tune the way in which protest is portrayed through music.

“I think these sorts of incidents are bound to happen until something dramatic changes,” he says. “However, such experiences, although uncomfortable, are opportunities for understanding the embededness of racism in culture and for transforming societies, hopefully in a peaceful way.”

Lost in transition

Adjusting to change is always difficult. After spending your life interacting with certain places and surrounded by particular landmarks, it is hard to watch as the layout and demographics of an area shift.

In March 2014, Honest Ed’s department store held a massive sale, giving away its extensive collection of signs and posters from as low as 50 cents. As I stood in the grueling eight-hour-long line to purchase the mementos, I was hit by an overwhelming gust of nostalgia, reminding me of all the times that I was hopelessly lost in the beloved store that is soon to be shut down. 

Low-rise housing in the Annex continues to be replaces with new, high-rise infrastructure. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

Instead of seeing the iconic sign that reliably lights up the intersection of Bathurst Street and Bloor Street West every night, Honest Ed’s is set to be torn down and will very likely be replaced by another addition to Toronto’s already extensive population of condominiums. 


Turnovers in building ownership are hardly limited to major neighbourhood landmarks like Honest Ed’s — it is a challenge that the majority of business owners in the Annex are facing, caused largely by the ever-rising cost of rent.

Tony Merant, manager of Seekers Books — tucked away in the basement at the corner of Bloor Street West and Borden Street — has some colourful things to say about renting out space in the Annex.  

“The rent is ridiculous in this area. It’s out to lunch, and it’s not good at all,” Merant says dolefully. “The rents are so high that we can’t cater to students without raising the prices, and then we just scare their business away. Even I’m having trouble, and I don’t pay the rent like others here.”

The Annex is known for it’s collection of small, independent businesses. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

As the owner of Seekers Books for the past 27 years, Merant has seen the changes to the atmosphere and architecture of the Annex unfold around him. According to his account, in the past decade, the Annex has gone from a moderately priced neighbourhood to almost unbearably expensive. 

“The bottom line is, taxes are getting too high. I pay $12,000 a year in property tax for this space, and this is just a basement space. So, what does that mean? It means that I have to sell $20,000 in books just to cover that tax,” Merant says, adding, “When I started out 27 years ago, it was about $350 a month. It’s gone through the roof, and it’s bullshit.”

In the same building as Honest Ed’s, a Bad Boy furniture and appliance store has set up camp where music icon Sonic Boom used to reside. The store’s move was not unprecedented; in 2011, Sonic Boom vacated its original spot beside the Bloor Cinema due to lease issues — eventually closing its Annex location. 

The changes do not stop there. Book City was essentially run to the ground when the ownership became unable to afford the cost of renting out the space. Their struggles with rent were heightened by competition with BMV Books, whose prices are substantially cheaper. 

A grocery store in the Annex. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

Mike Murray, the manager at the BMV location on Bloor Street West, had little to say about Book City’s closing, but had a similar opinion to Merant’s on the Annex’s current financial quandary. 

“The rates around here are going up,” Murray admits. “It’s unfortunate to see places like Honest Ed’s closing. Everything changes in this neighborhood, and a lot of it has to do with the rates of square footage.”


The closure of neighbourhood staples is only the beginning of the Annex’s new reality. As these iconic locations disappear, often accompanied with the demolition of their buildings, something new must inevitably take their places. 

Neighbourhood transition isn’t always negative, however. Many Toronto neighbourhoods, including Parkdale, the Junction, and Regent Park, have undergone or are in the process of transition. In Parkdale and the Junction, the change has been for the better, including, among other aspects, the flourishing of a vibrant cultural scene and an increasingly engaged community.   

These transitions, however, are in many ways unlike the transition in progress in the Annex. These neighbourhoods had a clearer impetus for change — namely to improve the standard of living in the community. 

Architecture characteristic of the area. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

On the contrary, transition in the Annex has been largely driven by rising rent prices accompanied by businesses simply not making money. These changes amount to new architecture coming to an old neighbourhood and a loss of historic charm. 

In just the past few years, condo developers have moved into the area, planting one oversized condominium after another in an area that is often recognized for its unassuming shops. These hip storefronts now exist in the shadows of mega-towers, looming above the neighbourhood’s original architecture and serving as a reminder of how unbearably expensive so many areas of Toronto have become. 

Paul Bedford, Toronto’s former planning chief and guest professor in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto, explains that these changes disproportionately affect small businesses. 

“Perhaps the key challenge is rising rents for small merchants who do not own their buildings. There will likely be a continuation of this given market trends if there is a demand for new and higher-end shops,” he says. 


Bedford also notes that these challenges are in no way unique to the Annex. “This is a common problem everywhere [in Toronto],” he adds.

In Merant’s opinion, even if you are able to afford to live in one of these condos, it would not necessarily be worth your while. 

“I’ve heard from friends who own condos that pay $800 a month in mortgage, and their condo fees are $700. They ask, ‘What am I getting for these condo fees?’ and the owners say, ‘Well, we clean the swimming pool once a week.’ … Who uses the swimming pool anyways?” he says.

For students, the cost of renting in the Annex is often unmanageable, and the possibility of eventually living in a charming downtown home in the Annex seems increasingly unlikely as the city becomes more gentrified and housing prices skyrocket. 

According to Louis Ceriz, the manager at Suspect Video, “[The Annex is] becoming less of a cultural hub, and more of a place to go eat and buy clothes, and that’s it. In terms of any kind of culture significance, it’s lessening, unless what replaces the stores when they’re displaced are other interesting establishments. But I can’t see that happening since usually the rents are jacked up, so no idiosyncratic store can open up in this place, and it just ends up getting homogenized.”

Juxtaposition of storefronts and high-rise apartments. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

As condos gradually arise not only in the Annex, but also in the entirety of downtown Toronto, living in niches like the Annex will become much less plausible and the exodus of residents to the ever expanding urban sprawl of suburbia is likely.

Having grown up on the outskirts of the Annex, I have a certain attachment to the buildings that are no longer there, or that will soon be gone. The image of Honest Ed’s — from its outlandish signs to a line of jacketed Annex-dwellers swathing around the building waiting for their free Thanksgiving turkeys — is embedded in the cultural memory of Toronto. The highly nostalgic landmark being bulldozed can seem like “a goddamn tragedy,” as one local passerby dropping into my conversation with Ceriz poignantly suggests. 

But in the natural life of a city, beloved buildings disappear and are replaced with new, modern architecture in cycles. In a burgeoning global hub like Toronto, the pace of change is remarkable, but somehow, the allure of the city seems to persist — and the Annex, with its streets of old Victorian houses, short buildings, and students ambling along the sidewalks, is weathering its evolution for now.