All posts by Teodora Pasca

Comment Editor 2016-2018 Associate Comment Editor 2015-2016

Presence and future

“Do you know who are First Nations people?”

“Who are they?”

There are at least 634 First Nations in Canada, made up of 1.7 million people speaking over 50 distinct languages. What is now called the ‘Greater Toronto Area’ is surrounded by nearly a dozen Indigenous communities, many of which called this region home for millennia before settler arrival.

Verne Ross is from Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan. He co-teaches the 200-level Introduction to Indigenous Studies course at UTSG’s Centre for Indigenous Studies.

The class covers foundational material in Indigenous knowledge, politics, and history, both independent of and in relation to settlers, from the traditional Seven Grandfather Teachings, to the four sacred medicines, to self-determination and governance.

The course is an invaluable learning opportunity for students who may otherwise have little exposure to Indigenous issues in their other courses.

Ross likes to push his students by asking them questions. He asks them to share why they are taking Indigenous Studies — and to consider what they really know of the people who have lived on this land for thousands of years.

“Who are they?”

The University of Toronto, in stark contrast, was founded in 1827. It operates on the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Indigenous students, staff, and community members from across Turtle Island study and work on all three campuses.

Education in Indigenous studies about and alongside Indigenous people is vital to a comprehensive education in Canada, as well as to understanding how the university got to where it is today.

Whose stories we teach

The courses offered at the Centre for Indigenous Studies overlap substantially with other disciplines. If students take other classes while lacking even a basic understanding of who Indigenous people are, they may be in for a jarring experience.

“If you go into Equity Studies, or English, or Anthropology, I guarantee my First Nations people are going to be mentioned in those lectures,” Ross says. “[And] the student is sitting there wondering… ‘Who are they? I didn’t know they were here.’”

“I didn’t know they existed.”

“Reconciliation is hard, and there is more to be done, but I am encouraged by the direction the law school has taken.”

— Daniel Diamond, Beaver Clan, Opaskwayak Cree Nation Law 

By offering courses on Indigenous languages and research methodologies, for instance, institutions like the Centre for Indigenous Studies have made a concerted effort to share that knowledge with the university at large.

Indigenous students, professors, and community members from other departments are also often invited to perform land acknowledgements at opening and closing ceremonies, or to share their experiences at panels and conferences.

In many places on campus, though, the attention and respect with which Indigenous content is treated depends on who is teaching.

Annie MacKillican is a third-year student and member
of the Mattawa North Bay First Nation. She is double majoring in Indigenous Studies and Political Science.

Despite centring mostly on Canadian politics, her political science instructors have at times completely failed to acknowledge the impact of Indigenous people on the political landscape.

“It’s frustrating, because it kind of reinforces the idea that Indigenous people are not relevant or present in today’s society,” MacKillican says.

Samantha Giguere, in her second year studying Archaeology and Indigenous Studies, holds similar views. She is Ojibwe from the Thessalon First Nation in Northern Ontario.

“The Indigenous view on history is typically brushed over in archeology classes, with just a quick mention that Indigenous people believe they have been in the Americas for a much longer time than proven through archaeological research,” Giguere says.

Other Indigenous students have had more positive experiences. Daniel Diamond is from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, a member of the Beaver Clan, and a first-year student in the Faculty of Law.

In Diamond’s opinion, the faculty has demonstrated an encouraging effort to incorporate Indigenous issues into its legal education plan. All first-year students are required to attend a half-day Introduction to Aboriginal Law course before beginning full-time studies in September, and the blanket exercise — a teaching method that tells the story of Canada’s Indigenous people — is incorporated into the faculty’s orientation week.

Some of Diamond’s professors have also highlighted Indigenous perspectives within the black-letter-law courses that make up the mandatory curriculum. His criminal law professor, Kent Roach, for example, focused much of his class on Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq man wrongfully convicted of murder in Nova Scotia, who served 11 years in prison before he was finally exonerated.

Marshall Jr.’s case is one of the most famous wrongful conviction cases in Canadian history. It is also a black mark on Canada’s criminal justice system — a landmark example of how anti-Indigenous prejudice at all stages of the process can culminate in carceral violence and injustice.

The university is in a position to promote a more honest and meaningful inclusion of Indigenous people and voices, and arguably has a responsibility to do so.

“Being an educational institution, they have the unique ability to change how people receive information about the country they live and study in,” MacKillican says.


Control over narratives

For many non-Indigenous students, university is their first opportunity to come into contact with Indigenous teachings — or even with Indigenous people.

Ross recounts the many preconceived notions that students have brought into his classroom.

“Is it true that Native people all live on reserves?” (No. Indigenous people live all across Canada, on reserve and off reserve.)

“Is it true that Native people get free education?” (Not really. ‘Status Indians,’ people recognized by the federal government as such under the Indian Act, may receive federal funding for postsecondary education. But funding is in limited supply and contingent on strict requirements. Many students, if they receive funding at all, do not receive enough to cover their costs.)

“Is it true that Native people don’t pay taxes?” (Not exactly. Indigenous people living off reserve pay taxes like any other resident. Certain property on reserve lands is subject to tax exemptions; conversely, prohibitions on tax collection have severely constrained the ability of Band Councils to raise revenue for public services in their communities.)

Where stereotypes arise, instead of scolding, Ross tries to challenge them in constructive ways.

“We want to be able to show them, but not to tell them,” he explains. 

Regrettably, educators may also perpetuate ignorance or misinformation about Indigenous people.

One of MacKillican’s professors refused to use the appropriate terminology when referring to Indigenous people. According to MacKillican, the professor claimed “that it would have no impact on the lives of Indigenous people if he called them ‘Indians.’”

The labels ‘Indian’ and ‘Aboriginal’ are fictions of Western law. Rooted in settler misunderstanding and othering, they can be pejorative when used outside of their specific legal context, though some Indigenous people in Canada and elsewhere have adopted variations of these terms. The word ‘Indigenous’ is usually preferred when speaking about Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people — to avoid homogenizing, the names of specific nations should be used.

Respecting the right of Indigenous people to be acknowledged in the way that they want can be fundamental to acknowledging their presence and power of identity.

Ziigwen Mixemong, a student in Indigenous Studies and Women & Gender Studies, is Mi’kmaq and Potawatomi, from Beausoleil First Nation on Georgian Bay. She grew up in a small town, where for years, she was the only person of colour at her school.

In Mixemong’s culture, babies aren’t always named right at birth. Though the name on her birth certificate is “Bailey,” she received her Indigenous spirit name, “Ziigwen,” at her traditional naming ceremony as a toddler.

Yet, despite her repeated requests, her elementary and secondary schools refused to let her go by “Ziigwen.” Though today, Mixemong holds no animosity toward the name “Bailey,” coming to U of T was in part an opportunity to reclaim her Indigenous spirit name.

“The fact that I was not allowed to go by Ziigwen for so long makes me very protective of my right to be called what I want,” Mixemong says. 

Threads of solidarity

Many Indigenous students are some of the first in their families to attend university, but may have limited support available to finance their educations, and face additional obstacles if they live on reserve or in fly-in communities.

Intergenerational impacts of colonialism — such as strains on family, lifelong experiences of racism, and barriers to embracing their cultures and languages — do not disappear once Indigenous students come to U of T.

“By the time you come to face the obstacles that are associated with university,” Giguere says, “some Indigenous youth have already climbed more mountains than some people will have to climb in their entire lives.”

A number of centres and organizations at the university continually strive to provide Indigenous students with additional support.

The First Nations House offers culturally sensitive services and programming, including academic advising, scholarships, and access to elders and teachers in residence.

Student organizations such as the Native Students’ Association (NSA) and the Indigenous Law Students’ Association (ILSA) host feasts, social gatherings, and educational events to engage with and promote the Indigenous presence on campus. The Indigenous Studies Students’ Union is hosting its third annual Honouring Our Students Pow Wow this spring.

Yet continual brushes with anti-Indigeneity can foster unpleasant or troubling experiences for Indigenous students, from course content that ignores Indigenous perspectives to insensitive comments from professors and peers.

Visible markers of colonialism across campus — such as buildings and monuments that honour colonial heroes — also play a role. Students at Victoria College have launched a campaign to rename both the residence and stream of the first-year Vic One program named after Egerton Ryerson, who played a key role in the design of the residential school system.

Mixemong’s encounters with anti-Indigeneity, misinformation, and neglect of Indigenous perspectives have at times severely impacted her learning. The comments made in her classes about her people have moved her to tears, and the toll this eventually took on her mental health has at times led her to step back from her studies. 

“In my experience, even classes that are seemingly safe spaces can tokenize Indigenous voices or silence them altogether,” Mixemong says.

The need for truth

Under the banner of ‘reconciliation,’ universities across Canada have implemented a wide range of initiatives designed to raise awareness of Indigenous issues. ‘Reconciliation’ is spoken about in schools, in politics, and on social media feeds.

We might consider framing our approach differently.

“There is an assumption, if you say reconciliation, that there was a good relationship to start,” Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo says. “In some cases, the relationship component was never there.”

Hamilton-Diabo is of the Mohawk nation and Director of Indigenous Initiatives at U of T. He co-chaired the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) steering committee at the university. In 2017, a team of Indigenous students, faculty, staff, and community members produced a report detailing the university’s plan to implement the calls to action from the TRC.

Among others, the committee’s recommendations included recruitment of and support for Indigenous students and employees, increased Indigenous alumni engagement, and mindfulness of Indigenous issues in university curricula and programming.

As Hamilton-Diabo points out, to even begin to “reconcile,” we need to know the truth.

The Canadian TRC was modelled after the restorative justice body of the same name set up in post-apartheid South Africa. The South African TRC invested innumerable resources into documenting the horrors of the apartheid regime, even taking the controversial step of offering amnesty to officials who agreed to confess.

The sheer number of volumes and records that came out of that initiative was designed to ensure that no one in South Africa, or around the world, would ever forget what took place there.

Canada isn’t quite there yet.

Ross has invited survivors of the residential school system to serve as guest speakers in his classes. Students’ reactions are palpable. Many are disbelieving at first — shocked that forcing children from their communities and brutally attempting to assimilate them into Western culture was, not so long ago, part of official Canadian policy.

Though questions are encouraged, Ross says, many students just sit and listen.

“I think the students are silent that way because they’re actually hearing the realities of what took place,” he explains.

“They’re learning about who are First Nations people.”

In light of that past, Mixemong feels that U of T and all of its settler students have a tremendous responsibility to Indigenous students at the university.

“We have inherited a horrific history,” Mixemong says, “and it is everyone’s responsibility to learn and grow from that.” 

At the same time, Hamilton-Diabo acknowledges that it is inappropriate to see Indigenous communities just through lenses like the residential schools system. Painting Indigenous people as victims overshadows their resilience, and ignores their contributions to history as well as to present and future societies.

Conversely, learning about Indigenous people, as settlers in or immigrants to this country, also requires students to be honest about how they fit into the picture.

Ross tells me that students often come to him claiming to be Indigenous. Mindful of diversity across nations, he is always careful in his response. Some students have rumours of Indigeneity in their families, or their relatives may even have discouraged them from pursuing their lineage.

But Ross also recognizes that some students who take his course or come to the centre do not necessarily have the best intentions. Some, he says, are actually searching for a new sense of identity.

“‘I’m not proud to be white.’ ‘I don’t want to be white.’”

“‘I want to be Native.’”

Every Indigenous person has a unique past, present, and future. Indigeneity is not a label that one can adopt and shed at will. And appropriation, Ross tells me, is not the way to build relationships.

“We welcome people into our communities, but we can’t change who you are.”

“Intergenerational trauma is real and it lies within the walls of this institution.”

— Ziigwen Mixemong, Mikmaq and Potawatomi, Beausoleil First Nation 

Women and Gender Studies & Indigenous Studies

Toward better relations

Hamilton-Diabo is confident that U of T is paying attention to Indigenous people. The challenge is how to do so effectively — within an institution this size and across three campuses, where various departments have more or less experience with Indigenous issues, and where roadblocks to retaining Indigenous students and faculty exist at all levels.   

Diamond is encouraged by the law school’s efforts to incorporate Indigenous perspectives within the standard black-letter law classes required of all first-year students.

“I think, in an ideal world, I would like to see more of the same,” Diamond says. “A continued and concerted effort to engage with Indigenous issues within the framework of the classes already being taught.”

MacKillican, too, would like to see increased focus on Indigenous people in departments and courses outside of the Centre for Indigenous Studies. Mixemong’s suggestions include increasing funding for Indigenous student resources, and thorough consultation to establish what they really need and want.

Giguere believes that archaeology programs across Canada should implement a mandatory Indigenous course requirement. The NSA has in the past lobbied for a mandatory Indigenous course requirement to be incorporated into all degrees at the university.

But Ross is skeptical about mandating any kind of learning or participation. He cautions that while the centre encourages students who are interested to get involved, in his opinion, this should be done without forcing anyone to learn. 

“We can’t force our ways on other nations that are coming to university,” Ross says. Settlers forced their ways on Indigenous people, he explains, by banning traditional ceremonies like sundances and potlatches and refusing to let people speak their languages. The damage of those dynamics continues to this day.

“That’s not who we are.”

As the largest university in Canada, U of T occupies a special role in this learning process. The university has the opportunity to foster a thorough understanding of the impact of colonial and oppressive policies on Indigenous people within its existing student and faculty communities.

It is also in a position to engage Indigenous people at all stages of this process, to the extent that they are interested in getting involved.

“It is no longer an acceptable practice to move ahead without Indigenous people involved,” Hamilton-Diabo says. “The lack of Indigenous people is no longer a valid excuse to say, ‘We’ll do it anyhow.’”

Educating future generations includes repairing existing relations — and building new ones for the present and future.

“Whether your people came here willingly, forcibly, historically, or recently, you are here now,” Mixemong says.

“We are all here, right now.”



Consent in cyberspace

Content warning: descriptions of sexual harassment, mentions of sexual assault and rape

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]exual harassment is often thought of as something intrinsically tied to the physical world. From getting catcalled on the street to receiving unwanted advances from an acquaintance, our typical notions of harassment are too frequently grounded in non-consensual interactions within physical relationships and spaces.

The internet has changed things — and our notions of harassment need to change in response. The experiences of online harassment survivors are no less valid, and the need to listen to their voices no less vital.

I spoke to 15 students about their experiences with online sexual harassment. The responses I received were overwhelming, humbling, and at times frightening. We don’t often think of the internet as an unsafe or evil place, but the stories told here might cause us to reconsider. The profound impact harassment has had on these students’ lives and the lives of others should spur us to confront this issue head on.

Persistent or predatory?

Unwanted romantic and sexual advances often escalate into the territory of harassment when parties refuse to take no for an answer. Many of my sources reported being singled out, being tracked down, receiving repeated messages from insistent individuals, or being otherwise targeted through online platforms like Facebook and Snapchat. Such experiences are common within a multitude of online spaces and apps, even on platforms where you would least expect them to take place.

Daryna has had multiple experiences with harassment on LinkedIn — a platform that, by all accounts, is intended to be a professional online environment — in which men have initiated conversations under the guise of beginning a professional relationship but quickly shift to making comments about her appearance or suggesting that she go out with them on dates. When Daryna turned down one invitation, the man managed to get a hold of her personal email and attempted to add her on other social networks.

A notorious arena for unsolicited sexual advances is the world of dating apps like Tinder, where inboxes are cluttered with lewd openers and cringe-worthy one-liners. One of Nicole’s matches, despite seeming normal in his profile, messaged her unsolicited and increasingly graphic descriptions of what he wanted to do to her, which made her very uncomfortable. When Adina cancelled a date she had set up on Tinder, the match she was supposed to meet called her a whore and accused her of leading him on.

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Adina believes such experiences have as much to do with the dating app environment as the people behind the screen. She tells me that simply being active on a dating app can create the perception that you are looking for sex and are therefore open to receiving any and all sexual advances, no matter how misguided that might be. In the long run, the environment breeds a toxic sense of entitlement to sexual experience, which may make some users feel uncomfortable or threatened.

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Ray*, a gay man of colour, tells me about his experience on dating apps like Grindr and Scruff, where overt instances of racism are normalized and often justified as sexual preferences. All of the harassment Ray has experienced on dating apps has had racial overtones.

“Some of the things will just be so racist that it comes across as funny,” he tells me. “There was this one guy who told me he was trying to sleep with one guy from every country. He’s like, ‘Where are you from? I’ve slept with guys from Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, and I’m trying to find someone from Hong Kong, China, India, are you any of those?’… Another told me he wanted me to be his ‘manga prince’ or something. He used some sort of Japanese term from anime.”

It is common knowledge that the internet can serve as a breeding ground for various forms of bigotry. The accessibility of online platforms can have profound repercussions in terms of the dissemination of harmful ideas, making it easy for some users to spread hatred while hiding behind the anonymity their laptop screens provide — all the while gaining support from cohorts of virtual followers.

After Pam* cut ties with a friend she had dated, she was disturbed to discover that he secretly owned an anti-feminist Reddit account, which featured misogynistic comments about women in general and about her and her friends. Pam came across multiple threads and comments linked to his profile that had themes of sexual violence; other users commented on his posts referring to women as ‘bitches’ and ‘cunts,’ stating that women needed to be raped in order to be taught a lesson.

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The anonymous nature of many online communities, and the separation between users online, also has the potential to facilitate behaviour that can only be described as predatory.

In her mid-teens, Manuela* was harassed by someone she met on an internet forum whom she initially trusted because he was a well-respected member of the online community. Wanting to explore her sexuality in a virtual space, Manuela corresponded and had cyber sex with the user over the course of a few weeks.

Though their initial interactions were relatively harmless, things quickly escalated into something more insidious. “It became pretty apparent pretty soon that he was basically a pedophile,” says Manuela. The man was significantly older than her and would frequently talk about how attractive and innocent he found young girls to be. Manuela was also aware that he had dated girls even younger than she was at the time.

When Manuela refused to send him naked photos of herself, the user became verbally abusive. “He would start to guilt me and shame me every time we talked about sending him my nudes,” she says. “He really would get into my head and just say a lot of terrible things. About how I’m worthless and terrible and selfish and narcissistic… It was very classic abusive behaviour.” At one point, he threatened to come find Manuela and rape her.

Max* sent naked photos of himself to a popular Tumblr user. He later came across a troubling post the user had made mocking a 12-year-old’s experience with self-harm. When Max confronted him, the user reblogged his comments to their public Tumblr and attached Max’s nudes to the post. “I felt so violated,” explains Max. “I’d [experienced] sexual assault before in my life. Everything just came rushing back. Everything I thought I was able to compartmentalize and store away in my head… all those things came back to me.”

Dave* had a frightening experience with, a website that matches Facebook profiles and facilitates conversations between users. Dave matched with a beautiful blonde girl, and the two of them started video-chatting and having cyber sex over webcam. The ‘girl’ turned out to be a scam artist stationed in the Philippines with an elaborate extortion operation. The person had set up a fake profile and used video footage from another source to trick Dave into thinking there was a woman on the other end of the screen. The man screenshotted Dave masturbating on camera, tracked down Dave’s family members on Facebook, and demanded money, threatening to send the photos to his family if Dave did not comply.

Terrified, Dave wired the man some money and begged him to stop, and the man eventually deleted all but one of the images he had on his hard drive. Dave finally blocked him, deactivated his email and accounts, and changed his privacy settings on Facebook. The man did not contact him again.

“I never heard anything from anyone, so I figured he must have actually taken pity on me,” said Dave. “But he still may very well have that last photo, and could bring my name up at any time.”

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Personal conflicts in online spaces

While trolls, creeps, and criminals lurking the internet’s darkest corners might paint a stereotypical picture of the dangers associated with the online world, the internet also facilitates and enables harm between people in ‘real-life’ relationships.

In 2014, a man who asked Joyce* out attempted to escalate their relationship very quickly; this made her uncomfortable to the point where she chose to stop talking to him. In 2017, completely out of the blue, the same man messaged her, writing, “ahaha you’re fat now and your boobs sag. Karma does exist.” Joyce had had very limited contact with him immediately after she ended things, and they hadn’t had any contact at all over the course of three years.

“Frankly the whole thing was uncomfortable and appalling,” says Joyce, “but I was just shocked at how long he held this grudge for after I very politely turned him down.”

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After she left her summer job, Fiona* exchanged Facebook information and phone numbers with a co-worker whom she considered a friend. Two hours later, to her shock, he sent her unsolicited photos of his penis. Although Fiona responded negatively, he refused to leave her alone.  Over the following weeks, he sent Fiona persistent messages asking her private questions about her sex life and accusing her of leading him on.

When Fiona confronted her co-worker, his response was disturbing. “When I openly told him, you know, ‘What you’re doing constitutes sexual harassment, because this is not okay,’ his response was literally, ‘This is turning me on,’” she says. On the other end of the phone with her, my stomach churns at the thought that her harasser found the situation all the more sexually arousing.

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When Khrystyna was 17 years old, someone at her workplace messaged her on Facebook, telling her that he had been “watching her” and made sexual comments about her body, including that he sometimes got “hard” at work while staring at her. Khrystyna later found out that he was nine years older than her. Even after Khrystyna changed jobs, for the next five years the man continued to pester her with messages, some sexually explicit, others angry that she was not responding to his advances. Once, he sent her a photo of his penis.

A substantial portion of online harassment occurs when intimate relationships go sour. When one of Khrystyna’s ex-partners found out she was seeing someone new, he sent her angry threatening messages and voicemails about harming her, himself, and her new partner. Another ex left sexist comments on all of the feminist Facebook posts she put on her profile; when she confronted him about it, he told her all she needed was “a good dick.”

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When Talia* started receiving suspicious messages from her friend Noelle’s* Snapchat account, they discovered someone had gotten a hold of Noelle’s password. Over the course of a few months, Talia and Noelle were bombarded with random dick pics and threats that Noelle’s intimate photos would be released if Talia did not send intimate photos to Noelle’s Snapchat account.

Though their harasser never revealed their identity, Talia and Noelle believe that it was Noelle’s ex-boyfriend, who had sexually assaulted Noelle at a party. Though Noelle never told anyone except Talia about her assault, he denied the fact that the encounter was not consensual and became convinced that Noelle was spreading rumours about what had happened.

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Some of the most extreme cases of online harassment between intimate partners involve ‘revenge porn’ — disclosure of a person’s intimate images without their consent. After Bethany* broke off a long-term relationship, the person she had been dating leaked her intimate images online. Many of Bethany’s friends, as well as complete strangers, were able to gain access to the photographs. She received an onslaught of unsolicited explicit images, harassment, and judgment from the people around her.

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Chloe* was involved in a rocky on-and-off relationship with her girlfriend, Evie*. In order to rope her back into the relationship when things went sour, Evie would blackmail Chloe, threatening to send Chloe’s intimate pictures to her parents. After Chloe finally cut things off, Evie managed to gain control over Chloe’s email and Snapchat accounts and was able to access intimate pictures and videos of Chloe and her new partner in the ‘Memories’ section of her Snapchat account.

Alarmed, Chloe got in touch with the police, but it was too late. Evie had followed through on her promise and sent the photos and videos to Chloe’s mother. Chloe had not previously been open about her sexuality with her parents; the incident forced her to reveal her sexual orientation to her father.

When she was in ninth grade, Indira’s* friend began a long-distance online relationship with an older man she had met on Omegle and who she later discovered had been operating through a fake account. When the two of them got into a fight, he posted a photo she had sent him of her masturbating on her Facebook wall. “About five hours passed until she realized it was there,” says Indira. “By that time, her friends, family, all the people she knew had seen it. She was 15.” Indira also tells me that sending intimate pictures or screenshots of her female classmates was normalized at her high school.

These experiences are not only disturbing, they are also highly illegal. Though Chloe opted not to press charges, it is worth noting that under the Canadian Criminal Code, what Evie did could classify as extortion, an offence carrying a maximum penalty of life in prison. Meanwhile, the girls involved in intimate photo leaks at Indira’s school were all underage.

“For the most part we were under 18,” says Indira. “That’s child pornography.”

The extent to which perpetrators are willing to violate the privacy and dignity of the people around them is alarming. Perhaps there is something about the online environment that makes the decision to do so easier and more appealing.

“The internet enables and empowers to amplify what they would have done in person, or maybe wouldn’t have done in person, given the circumstances,” says Daryna. She explains that the distancing effect the internet has on personal relationships can enable people to make decisions they might not otherwise have made in person.

Fiona tells me that, prior to her experience with harassment, she considered her co-worker a friend and did not suspect he was capable of such behaviour given the way they interacted face-to-face. “There were absolutely no signs that he could behave this way,” she emphasizes. “As soon as he had access to my social media, it completely changed his specific behaviour and how he could interact with me.”

The internet has the potential to drastically change a person’s behaviour — sometimes to the extent of seeming like an entirely different person. In the case of Fiona’s co-worker, moving their interactions to the digital sphere meant him feeling entitled to her sexual attention and open to share a side of himself that she clearly did not want to see.

“He genuinely did not seem to understand why what he was doing was not okay,” she says.

Damage beyond the digital

The harassment that takes place in the online world can have profound and tangible repercussions for victims. We should not underestimate the potential psychological stress associated with being exposed to repeated unwanted graphic or threatening sexual messages, having your most intimate photos shown to others, or feeling physically unsafe as a result of these experiences.

Because Max’s pictures had been posted on a popular Tumblr account, countless other users had access to them; some actually reached out to him personally, making jokes or continuing the harassment, though others expressed support for him in his situation. Traumatized, Max’s grades and personal relationships suffered dramatically; when he lost his achievement-based financial aid, he was forced to recount his experience in detail to the university administration.

“Victims get revictimized constantly,” he says. “You always have to relive that trauma when you explain it.”

What happens online is also undoubtedly and necessarily connected to the analogue world. Ray draws a connection between the threats of violence he has received on dating apps and recent cases such as that of Bruce McArthur, who, as of press time, is facing six charges of first-degree murder in relation to the deaths of primarily racialized gay men in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood. “It’s usually an older white man messaging a younger man of colour, wanting to somehow enact and play out his fantasies of dominance and submission and racial power and authority and control,” Ray tells me. 

Unsurprisingly, traumatic experiences can change how users behave online. All too wary of incurring further harm, many sources reported deleting their social media accounts or otherwise modifying how they navigated the internet. Daryna has taken steps to scrub her LinkedIn profile of certain personal details, ensuring that the image she projects is professional to the point of being “sanitized” so as to ward off unwanted attention.

The very fact that the onus to take such precautions is often placed on those who have faced harassment, and not the perpetrators, is highly problematic. Nevertheless, this logic continues to pervade interactions between harassers and their targets. After Fiona confronted her co-worker about the photos he sent, he accused her of leading him on, said things like “don’t pretend that you didn’t want this,” and “take some responsibility,” and told her that his girlfriend didn’t need to know about what he had done — that it would be their “little secret.”

Even more problematic is the extent to which victims internalize that mentality. A number of the sources who came forward had at some point minimized or second-guessed their experiences, unsure whether what had happened to them could be classified as harassment or was serious enough to warrant intervention. A troubling number of sources began their stories with, “I’m not sure if this is what you are looking for,” or “I’m not sure if this counts.”

For many people who experience harassment, the prospect of redress might not seem reasonable in the first place. Khrystyna draws attention to the fact that, in many circumstances, the reporting procedures themselves are unclear, require much emotional labour from victims, and simultaneously afford no guarantee that their complaints will be taken seriously.

Bethany did not report the person who distributed her intimate photos or the people who harassed her. She tells me now that she wishes she had, but she was paralyzed by fear of retaliation, as well as by the inexplicable guilt she felt about what had happened to her.

Bethany was also afraid that sharing her experience with more people would cause things to spiral even further out of control. “It’s no longer just you involved, it becomes a larger array of other people,” she explains. “It becomes something so much more, something so much bigger than what you are.”

Khrystyna also expresses that a lot of women do not process interactions as sexual harassment due to the extent to which such behaviour is normalized in broader society. “When you grow up with people constantly validating the predatory behaviour of boys and men, you eventually learn that apparently that’s ‘just how men are’ and you as a woman are just required to sort of live with it,” she says. “And it can take a long time to unlearn that.”

“I’m sure you’re familiar with the fact that lots of people who are survivors minimize experiences,” says Manuela, speaking to the trouble she had reconciling with her abuse. For the few weeks she was being threatened and degraded online, Manuela would cry herself to sleep almost every night after logging out of her conversations with the forum user with whom she had been corresponding. Despite the emotional toll this experience took on her at the time, years went by until she realized that the man’s behaviour classified as abusive.

Manuela explains that because everything was happening online and the man never physically came to her jurisdiction, her feelings of pain, shame, and fear sometimes felt unreasonable or unjustified. “It just took that long to see it as harmful,” she emphasizes. “Because it felt like it didn’t impact anything, because it was digital.”

We’ve now seen that the internet’s grasp is far-reaching, and that the impact of online harassment has implications that extend far beyond the digital sphere. But when your harasser is not physically in front of you, and you are separated by a screen and a network, it is all too easy to convince yourself that what you are experiencing is insignificant — that what is happening to you is not entirely real.

Routes to redress 

Victims should not have to feel as if their experiences are invalid, and clearly something needs to be done to remedy the injustice that can take place online.

One approach is to confront social media outlets about the ways in which their structures might inadvertently facilitate online abuse. Given the frequency with which harassment takes place online, outlets can certainly take proactive steps to prevent it from happening. Most major social media outlets have now integrated mechanisms for users to report offensive or hateful content. To help dissipate potential toxicity on dating apps, Nicole and Ray suggest incorporating regular reminders for users to be respectful when they reach out to one another and embedding clearly visible reporting tools onto the main interface.

But there are limitations to what social media outlets can or will do in this regard. After repeatedly being locked out of her account by her harasser, Noelle reported her situation to Snapchat, which helped her disable her account. But both Adina and Khrystyna have tried to report sexist Facebook comments, and Facebook has neglected to take them down.

Some complainants turn to law enforcement for assistance, with mixed results. Though Dave found the officers who took his statement to be helpful and reassuring, Chloe’s experience was lacklustre. When she took her case to the Toronto police, they told her they would go to Evie’s house and talk to her in person. As far as Chloe knows, that never happened.

“The process was really long,” says Chloe. “It took a month for them to simply leave a message being like, ‘Don’t contact her.’” Not wanting to wait any longer for the police to take action, Chloe resorted to getting in touch with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) through a mutual connection, and an RCMP officer went to Evie’s house that night to give a warning.

At the same time, Chloe appreciates that police at least have the influence necessary to scare people into compliance with the law. “Even if the police don’t necessarily do anything, I think a lot of people are still afraid of consequences,” she adds. “A lot of people are just stupid, but they’re not just going to do something regardless of what the police say. If the police say stop, a lot of people will stop.”

Importantly, many complainants have indeed managed to achieve redress through formal channels. Deeply frustrated with the repeated unsolicited photos and messages she received from her co-worker, Fiona wound up filing a complaint with her former management, who took it very seriously. She believes the employee was eventually fired.

Finally, there is the potential to achieve positive change through grassroots, community-based channels — often themselves facilitated by online networks. Adina mentions the existence of Toronto-based Facebook groups that women join to alert one another about experiences of harassment they have experienced with specific men on dating apps. The sheer ubiquity of these experiences, especially for women and other marginalized people, means there is power to be harnessed from banding together.

Toward a better internet

The experiences of the people I spoke with, and the concerns they raised about the nature of online platforms, are valid, concerning, and demand redress. At the same time, they bring us to a crossroads in terms of how we want to think about the internet in the first place.

Certainly, elements of online environments make it easier for harassment to take place. But by and large, the internet also facilitates positive connections and relationships; it traverses otherwise impossible distances and barriers and is integral to the openness and accessibility of knowledge, information, and dialogue in the twenty-first century. In many circles, internet access is considered a basic human right.

“As someone who has made a lot of friends and connections online,” says Manuela, “I think there’s a really complicated conversation to be had there about how it can be possible to make things safer for people without just villainizing the medium.”

Under these circumstances, an overly restrictive or heavy-handed approach might be inappropriate. The internet can definitely unearth the worst parts of human nature — but it can also be a space for productive dialogue and innovation. Any solutions we put forward to addressing its uglier facets should be sensitive to that.

In the meantime, it is encouraging to see that many people are growing more comfortable sharing their experiences. Multiple sources expressed gratitude that someone was willing to publish their stories and hoped that speaking on the record would bring courage to others who were contemplating doing so as well.

An immense amount of suffering ties these stories together, but it is compassion and resilience that will ultimately propel them forward.

“I am in a place where I am safe from [my abuser],” says Manuela. “He can’t touch me anymore. He can’t hurt me. So I just feel very sorry for him. I feel more sorry for all the people he’s probably hurt along the way, and probably in much worse ways than me, but he needs help in a way that I don’t think any system currently would provide.”

“[The] people who probably had to endure his bullshit need help in ways that the system doesn’t provide either,” adds Manuela. “They should come first.”

*Name has been changed at the individual’s request

Change by design

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s much as I love my parents, I cannot fathom why they continue to pay for cable. Coming from a generation whose pop culture preferences were at least partially facilitated by the rise and fall of LimeWire, I grew up surrounded by kids who knew how to torrent without incurring so much as a pop-up.

As of 2016, Netflix had accumulated more than 5.2 million consumers in Canada and was well on its way to infiltrating 50 per cent of households in the country. Today, alternative streaming services like HBO NOW and Amazon Prime continue to compete with Netflix on the Canadian market. Meanwhile, I don’t have a TV, and my father continues to step outside after thunderstorms to adjust the satellite on the roof.

Technology is fascinatingly context-sensitive. What one person might consider useful, like paying $8.99 per month to watch Stranger Things on a smartphone, could be totally lost in the eyes of another. There are clear generational and cultural divisions between my preferred medium for consuming entertainment and the way my family is used to doing things. And it’s not difficult to imagine someone 10 years younger saying something similar about me.

More importantly, the ways in which people respond to technological innovation matter a great deal. While some might jump at the chance to test-drive the latest products, others are reluctant to embrace new innovation into their daily lives. Often, that reluctance is wholly justified in light of the associated risks.

On October 17, it was announced that Sidewalk Labs, a sister company to Google, would launch a project to completely redesign the eastern part of Toronto’s waterfront. This project will intertwine digital technologies with urban development to the point where the community will be considered a “city of the future.”

Simultaneously, tech hopefuls are banking on the belief that Toronto will soon become an artificial intelligence hub for Canada, leading the country toward greener pastures. The University of Toronto’s research expertise will no doubt play a role in this process, meaning any developments that come about will likely affect students and staff as well as the community at large.

In light of the planned changes for the city, I wanted to explore the institutional frameworks and processes that facilitate technological developments, as well as the social responses associated with the emergence of new innovations.

The innovation landscape

U of T is renowned for its contributions to the technology industry in Canada and its excellence in this area of pedagogy. Aside from the impressive credentials associated with its various tech-focused faculties, numerous laboratories for technological innovation are located right on campus and contribute to spurring technological change in the city and beyond.

One such hub is the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, or ‘the Hatchery’ for short. Hosted in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, the centre provides teams of students with tools and resources geared toward helping them establish successful startups. I went to 222 College Street to speak with Joseph Orozco, Co-founder and Executive Director; Mimi Hao, Operations Lead; and Naveed Ahmed, Community Engagement Officer.

“The Hatchery is solely agnostic,” explains Orozco. “We believe that the tools we provide are needed by any type of startup that wants to [get into] business.”

The Hatchery caters to teams of three to four students, with at least one student required to have an understanding of technology or engineering. Examples of projects that have come out of the Hatchery include TeleHex, the world’s lightest Allen key set for bicycles; PhysioPhriend, an app built to provide accessible physiotherapy data; and Kepler Communications, a satellite communications company.

Over the years, while engaging in community outreach, the number of entrepreneurship applications to the Hatchery has surged. The Hatchery has hosted a “Young Innovator Boot Camp” at Scarlett Heights Entrepreneurial Academy, where high school students were tasked with developing ideas for products to solve problems a thousand years into the future. The winning idea in 2015 was a ‘permanent doctor’ — a microchip that, when inserted into the patient’s body, could monitor their physical health, detect evidence of illness, and administer appropriate medicine.

Conversely, some other educational settings at U of T have opted to steer clear of digital technologies altogether. A number of instructors have imposed technology bans in classroom settings, often based on studies positing that students learn better without the distractions posed by computers; the bans have prompted some students to voice concerns about accessibility in the classroom.

Thomas Gendron, a second-year Criminology and Ethics, Society and Law student, and Estée Katz, a third-year Ethics, Society and Law and Bioethics student, have both experienced tech bans in classrooms.

“I’ve had a couple profs that have tried to prevent the use of laptops or technology entirely,” Gendron tells me, “which is pretty laughable in situations like Convocation Hall, where class is like 1,500 [students] and they’re trying to implement a full cell phone ban.”

When instructors attempted to implement an electronics ban in Gendron’s first-year politics course, for example, students largely ignored it. Gendron refers to the policy as “extremely backwards,” alluding to the fact that many people could otherwise have made good use of the technology for educational purposes.

In one of Katz’s classes, students using laptops were asked to sit on a specific side of the class so as not to distract others. Though Katz believes this was a better solution than a full-on ban, she also feels there is a strange logic associated with attempting to regulate students’ behaviour in this way.

“At that point, I feel like you’re an adult, so if you feel like you’re going to learn better using your computer, then use your computer,” says Katz. “You should know how you learn best and if you’re going to spend the class online shopping, then that’s your deal.”

Gendron has been frustrated with slow rates of digitization in educational settings since he was younger. As a child who grew up with computing technologies, his experience apparently surpassed that of all the staff members at his elementary school.

“The moment anything went wrong they would call me, the sixth grader, in to try and fix the issue,” says Gendron. I laugh uneasily when he tells me that adopting this de facto IT role meant being granted access to a wide range of sensitive information, from students’ grades to a teacher’s PayPal account.

It would be absurd to compare U of T to Gendron’s elementary school. The university is home to one of the most reputable computer science departments in the world, and students have access to a wide range of technological resources. Libraries are well equipped with computer labs and rentable laptops. Gerstein Library even has a 3D printer and scanner.

At the same time, the persistence of tech bans reveals a tension between the traditional and the digital, which is unsurprising in light of its context. History and pop culture are rife with images of institutions like U of T as places steeped in institutional memory, full of gothic architecture and curmudgeonly instructors.

In light of advancements in computing technologies and mathematical softwares, the chalkboard theorems in films like Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind might now be perceived as anachronistic within certain modern educational settings.

It won’t be long before today’s ways of learning fall out of favour; anticipating what will take their place, and what rules will arise to regulate them, is easier said than done.

Changes on the books

Giuseppina D’Agostino is a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and Founder and Director of IP Osgoode, the school’s intellectual property and technology program. Evocative of the situation at U of T, D’Agostino refers to technology both as a “disruptor” and as a driver of change.

“The law always, immemorial, has reacted to new technologies: from the typewriter to the printing press before that,” says D’Agostino. “Every time there’s new technologies, there are disruptions in the market, new ways of dealing with change, and the law has to change.”

Part of this involves crafting the legal infrastructure in a way that accommodates technological innovations, which involves looking to areas of law such as copyright and patent. Much of the protection available for new inventions, D’Agostino tells me, depends on access to justice, which can be highly limited for parties like creators and law students.

“I can tell you that the innovators on the ground, the students, don’t have those resources,” says D’Agostino. One of the reasons why D’Agostino founded IP Osgoode was because students had ideas for change but lacked the resources with which to see them through.

Slowly but surely, the legal profession has undergone substantial changes in the way of technological advancement. Legal research databases such as LexisNexis and Westlaw, as well as various forms of legal software, are automating work formerly completed through more traditional means.

Completely new innovations have also emerged. Avi Brudner is the Head of Strategy & Operations at Blue J Legal, a Toronto-based company that employs artificial intelligence strategies to predict legal outcomes. “We predict case outcomes by using data from previous cases, leveraging machine learning to do that accurately,” says Brudner.

Having officially gone to market as of January 2017, Blue J Legal’s venture into the world of predictive legal technology began with tax law.

At the same time, the persistence of tech bans reveals a tension between the traditional and the digital, which is unsurprising in light of its context. History and pop culture are rife with images of institutions like U of T as places steeped in institutional memory, full of gothic architecture and curmudgeonly instructors.

The company’s first product, Tax Foresight, is designed to maximize the quality of legal advice professionals provide to their clients by making use of technology that can detect patterns in case databases.

“It’s just not realistic for a tax professional to go back and read all 500 cases in a given area of law, understand how all the factors in those 500 cases are related to each other, and then use that information to make a prediction about a new case,” explains Brudner. In his view, Blue J Legal is granting tax professionals that very ability, allowing them to gain insights that would otherwise be impossible to reach.

The “superpowers” that come with products like Tax Foresight, as Brudner puts it, exemplify some of the benefits associated with innovation. Moves toward digitization and incorporation of machine learning can free up time and cut costs for clients — something that could be especially useful in a profession often considered notoriously resistant to technological change.

D’Agostino refers to the legal profession as “one of the dinosaurs” in tech-related conversations. “The Copyright Board is now dealing with tariffs about technology that is probably 10 years old,” says D’Agostino. “They’re going to come up with decisions that are dated already and that really have no resonance to current market practices and user behaviour.”

I see her point. Trials and appeals can take exorbitant amounts of time to resolve, and court systems in Ontario remain largely paper-based. More fundamentally, the law in Canada is grounded in the rule of precedent, which requires the outcomes of future decisions to be consistent with those in previous cases so long as their circumstances are sufficiently similar. That inherent reliance on the past could throw a wrench into things when rapidly evolving technologies are at stake.

The impression I get from Brudner, however, is that Blue J Legal hasn’t suffered. He tells me that once professionals see the product, they appreciate how it can be integrated into their own practices. “We’ve been really excited by the uptake from the legal profession,” says Brudner. Maybe there is hope.

Given that technologically innovative strategies can be harnessed to address a wide variety of social issues, it is arguably in our best interest to not only figure out how to facilitate these solutions, but also how to do so responsibly.

Reason for restraint

When discussing the feasibility of innovations, it is crucial to consider the ways in which they might be received by the society that adopts them. Dr. Rebecca Woods is an assistant professor in the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at U of T and a cultural historian of technology. She considers any type of technology “to be deeply embedded in the society and culture in which it operates.”

Accordingly, Woods believes that what might be perceived as “resistance to an innovation” may actually have to do with how compatible it is with a society’s culture. She uses the example of Uber, which, despite having become a ubiquitous method of transportation in cities like Toronto, has come up short when trying to appeal to consumers in other regions. Residents in Frankfurt, Germany, for instance, perceived Uber’s tactics as aggressive instead of innovative. The company eventually withdrew from the city after 18 months of operation.

I ask Woods to comment on attitudes toward technological innovation in the present day. “What I notice is a lot of hubris, frankly,” she replies. “A lot of rhetoric out there is public discourse that assumes that technological change is inherently for the good, that it is progressive in the sense that it is bringing us closer and closer to some sort of better society, better future.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that innovations almost always have unintended consequences. Despite it being launched as a peer-to-peer housing share system, for instance, much of the market on Airbnb has been taken over by third-party actors in the hospitality industry. A report from the Urban Politics and Governance Lab at McGill University found that Airbnb has now removed 14,000 rental units from housing markets in Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver. Housing prices in the latter two cities have continued to rise, much to the alarm of tenants.

“A technological solution… might solve the immediate problem,” says Woods, “but it’s almost always bound to produce new problems of its own.”

Not everyone I speak to shares Woods’ concerns. When I ask about drawbacks associated with Blue J Legal’s technology, Brudner says they have found none. In response to a similar question about the projects that come out of the Hatchery, Hao states it is important “to have the mindset of moving forward and not being afraid of all the complications things may cause.”

While Orozco acknowledges the importance of evaluating solutions for potential harm to others and to the environment, he feels technological innovation is fundamentally a good thing — something in our evolutionary nature that “we owe to ourselves” to continue pursuing.

Yet, as I speak with Woods, I find myself struggling to repress memories of various tech-related horror stories. Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram have been linked to deteriorating mental health states in teens and young adults, which have included multiple reports of suicides. Further, hackers routinely find ways to use their skills for sexually exploitative purposes; one of the most infamous naked photo leaks occurred in 2014, when nudes of over 100 A-list celebrities were distributed online.

Recently, in a turn of events I expect will be parodied in the upcoming season of Black Mirror, a Wisconsin tech corporation threw a party for employees willing to have company-owned microchips implanted in their hands. The technology is made possible through the Swedish corporation Biohax International, which is scheduled to take a ‘chipping tour’ throughout Sweden in the near future. Thinking back to the ‘permanent doctor’ at Scarlett Heights, this makes me uneasy.

“There may be something to a little bit of hesitance or restraint when it comes to adopting innovations merely because they’re innovations,” advises Woods. It’s easy to understand where she’s coming from. Innovations like Uber and the smartphone have radically changed the societies that have adopted them, and many of their consequences have yet to be seen. How could we possibly anticipate them all?

One might also wonder how things will play out with what D’Agostino identifies as the next big “disruptor” — artificial intelligence (AI). AI technologies often seek to modify how we conceptualize human capital, or even to replace it altogether. As such, its increasing prevalence in society will have colossal effects for the nature of the workforce.

McKinsey Global Institute estimates that about half of all the activities that people are currently paid to do will be automated by 2055. Even more dramatically, Taiwanese venture capitalist and technology executive Kai-Fu Lee believes AI will replace half of all jobs within the next decade.

According to D’Agostino, repetitive jobs will be the first to go. Speaking to the legal profession, she says, “If you’re just drafting contracts, drafting patents, then you may have to change your skillset, diversify because just doing one thing is going to make you dispensable through technology.” Given the current economic climate, students and recent graduates of all disciplines might be forced to stomach that advice.

“A technological solution… might solve the immediate problem,” says Woods, “but it’s almost always bound to produce new problems of its own.”

And if technology is a social phenomenon, it undoubtedly affects how we interact with one another. The smartphone, for instance, has fundamentally changed the way we communicate with others. Woods points out that we now text in advance to make sure people are available for phone conversations, which is substantially different from just calling someone up to chew the fat.

In general, communications technologies have facilitated radical shifts in the ways people relate to one another. The last time I had a conversation without referencing an internet meme was probably around the time LimeWire called it quits.

“Even if you feel like something is an innovation, you feel the loss of what it’s replacing,” says Woods.

Preparing for the next big thing

I ask D’Agostino whether there is an issue in the legal profession today that could be alleviated through the use of new technology. She responds that the answer will be the next legal tech startup — the next big thing. “That’s what we ask our students,” she says. “Where’s the problem, what’s the problem?… And that’s a company.”

I also ask representatives at the Hatchery to speak to problems in the community they would personally want to prioritize in future projects. Orozco suggested that entrepreneurship tools could be used to address ‘us-and-them’ political divides currently taking place in countries around the world, including to a certain extent in Canada.

Ahmed wants to tackle the gender gap that exists in the world of entrepreneurship, especially with respect to small businesses and startups. The first- and second-place teams at this year’s Hatchery pitch competition were both led by women, and it would certainly be encouraging to see similar representation in the future.

Given that technologically innovative strategies can be harnessed to address a wide variety of social issues, it is arguably in our best interest to not only figure out how to facilitate these solutions, but also how to do so responsibly.

More importantly, the ways in which people respond to technological innovation matter a great deal. 

In this vein, D’Agostino identifies the need for long-term commitment to resource investment. “If we want Canada to be an innovative country and want to innovate our industries, then we need to be able to support them,” she says. That includes paying attention to what she refers to as the “bedrock” components: namely, ensuring that our internet infrastructures are stable and secure.

At the same time, keeping in mind the situations currently unfolding within courtrooms, D’Agostino says it can be a good thing that the law is moving at its own pace. Harkening to the way she teaches her curriculum at Osgoode, “You also have to ensure you don’t jump, because you want to make sure everybody’s with you as you’re doing it so you can carry people along.”

Recalling Woods’ words of caution, part of that strategy should require sensitivity to how technological innovation will change us. As we’ve seen, anticipating these consequences can be analogous to trying to predict the future — absurdly difficult and sorely necessary at once.

“There’s a quote that we always overestimate the change in two years and underestimate the change in 10,” says Brudner. In light of the rate of change, he can’t tell me what law firms or legal technologies will look like years into the future, however he appears confident that whatever tools are developed will continue to improve.

I am confident too. It pays to be forward-thinking, so long as we are also careful to heed the lessons of the past. As students at the university, as members of a generation in which digital technologies shape our presents and our futures, it is easy to be frightened of the uncertainty that lies in wait. More exciting than fear, however, are the opportunities that might come hand in hand with the unknown.

“A child is a treasure”

My first memory: I am running through what I think is a restaurant, weaving through legs that I think belong to my godparents. I am probably two years old, clinging to a stuffed animal duck. As my family would tell me later, the duck, named Donaldel, was a gift from my cousin Monica at my christening and is therefore almost as old as I am now.

Aside from my restaurant escapade — which in hindsight could have been nothing more than a dream — I remember nothing before when I was five years old. My memory generally works like clockwork, easily matching complex patterns of colours and shapes on IQ tests, pulling up decade-old facts about people that they don’t even remember themselves.

Consequently, I find this lack of recollection infuriating for a number of reasons, the most important being that it’s as if my life began only when I stepped foot on Canadian soil.

I was born in 1996 in Constanța, Romania, a city on the shore of the Black Sea. Less than five years later, my parents packed up and moved to Toronto. Since then it’s been our home, yet those five years still itch at my conscience. Every time I return to Romania, everyone I speak with seems to have a larger knowledge of who I am and where I am from than I do.

Reflecting on that years later, not fully knowing felt like an ignorance I wanted to wash my hands of. Reaching out to family and unearthing photo albums I hadn’t touched for decades, I made it my mission to connect the dots.


An exhaustive summary of Romanian history is impossible to contain within the scope of this piece. What is relevant, in the simplest terms possible, is that the political and ideological forces that shook the rest of the world during the post-World War II period left no stone unturned in Eastern Europe.

Although Romania was never part of the USSR, for decades it was governed by a rigid and repressive communist regime. Persecution, rationing, eviction, and violence were only some of its consequences, and my family lived through them for generations.

I was born almost seven years after the revolution of December 1989, which violently dethroned General Secretary Nicolae Ceaușescu — former leader of the Communist Party — and set off a spark of revolution and reform that extended beyond Romania’s borders. For a long time, the country struggled to get its head above water again.

“Romania in the 2000s was turbulent, captured by a wild capitalism, without major opportunities for regular people — as in, those without political power or security,” my aunt Viorica tells me, reflecting on the time around when we left and the years afterwards. “It was difficult for all of us… It was a jungle that made us all sick.”

Problems with democratization and re-building the state are what drove many people away. “[We] considered at that time that we could not wait any longer,” my dad, Tudor, tells me. “Three generations in my family [were] sacrificed, killed, prosecuted, isolated. I did not want my children sacrificed through other social and political experiments.”

In 2001, my parents moved to Canada to escape political and economic instability and the corruption that had corroded social institutions like rot. At the same time, they were hopeful for the opportunities that Canada might bring. Understandably, the gravity of this choice made it a difficult one to stomach for many of our loved ones.

“It was a shock for all of us,” Monica says. “You caught us unprepared. For a long time we didn’t understand why, only your parents knew what drove you to leave.”

Much like the majority of my extended family, my parents had lived in Romania for their entire lives; they had spent decades becoming both established and successful. Compared to others, my parents stood pretty high on the social scale, both holding postsecondary degrees. My mom worked in psychiatry, my dad in engineering.

Abandoning that to move halfway around the world, to a country 40 times the size of what we knew at home, must have seemed rash in some sense.

“You leaving was extremely emotional for everyone,” my cousin Dana says. “Everyone felt like they lost something, something we couldn’t get back.”

“I recognize that at the time, I didn’t understand their decision very well,” she adds, having been near my current age when we left. “But now I’m a mother also, and I can understand it better.”

My parents told me that this was far from easy, and my family struggled both financially and socially to adjust to life in Toronto. Overwhelmingly, as is the case with many families who leave their homes behind for North America, my parents wanted a better life for me. Perhaps this is what made the sacrifice worth it.

“They tried to bring the American dream to life for you and your future children,” Viorica says. “Any parent would want for their children everything that can be the best and the most secure. In a family, a child is a treasure, the only one for which there can exist no price.”

When I ask my parents if they regret leaving, their answer is no.

“The only things I miss are home, family, friends, and the seashore,” my dad says. To me, that seems like a lot to leave behind.


The first time I returned to Romania, I travelled alone. At 10 years old, I was unable to fully comprehend where I was going or who I was going to see. My family is dispersed across different regions of the country, and in just a couple months, I visited many people, including Viorica and my uncle Ion in Bucharest; my uncle Ionut in Piatra Neamț; and Monica and Dana in Constanța. I took back with me my first real memory of the Black Sea.

I remember a phone call with my friend, shortly after I came home. After a couple months of speaking only Romanian, she almost didn’t recognize my voice with the slight accent.

This seems wholeheartedly bizarre to me now, because I have always been right at home in Toronto. Having completed all but one year of my schooling here, I speak perfect, unaccented English. I am white. I grew up in North York. I learned French, watched Degrassi, and listened to Drake. The fact that I was born elsewhere, can speak a different language, and could have had an entirely different life easily goes undetected.

“When you come back to Romania, it’s joyous for us to see one another,” Monica says. “I think you have changed a lot since you started living in Canada, but that’s the way it is.”

She expresses a sentiment echoed by everyone I spoke to: “All of us have changed.”

My parents and I have been back to Romania together on three occasions since we moved. Each time, we visit as many people as we can, all of whom warmly welcome us into their homes. With each trip, I began to put the pieces together, and only recently have I begun to conceptualize how much meaning these reconnections hold.

“There is a lot to say,” explains Ionut, recalling our visits. Even when my parents and I lived in Romania, distance was a factor; we lived near the sea, while Ionut and his family lived up north. He says, “Sometimes it can compare to those times when you were in Romania, but in a different city, in Constanța… It was the same in some sense.”

Over the years, I’ve taken hundreds of pictures, seen the mountains and the sea, and spent time with people whose faces had regrettably faded from my memory. All of them remembered me, and each time were shocked at how much I had grown. Time had created chasms between the pieces of my family here and there, and what little we had to spend together seemed perilously short.

“I feel that there’s never enough time to sit and talk,” Dana says. “The distance… It ruptures communication. I admit I know almost nothing about your life there, and in the few moments in which we can see each other, we don’t have enough time to say everything. The distance is great and it’s limiting.”

This idea of distance complements the ways in which we are all becoming more globally connected. Cultural exchange between Eastern Europe and other areas of the world is extremely prevalent, and North America is no exception.

Despite differences in language, religion, architecture, and traditions, unifying forces remain. In Bucharest, I can shop at American retailers and watch Hollywood movies with subtitles in theatres. In Toronto, I can attend Romanian churches and find my favourite Romanian desserts in European delis, though they don’t taste quite as good as what you might find in the ‘cofetarii’ shops in Romania.

“Today, Romania, the EU, Asia, Australia… are all one water and earth,” Viorica says. “That’s what globalization means, and I speak from my own experience. We have been to many places all around the world, we’ve been to every continent, we learned that we didn’t have anything or anyone to fear.”

Simultaneously, my relatives also identify with the importance of returning home. No matter how far you wander, something about where you came from pulls you back into its grasp. That kind of thing is hard to shake, and in spite of my predominantly Canadian memory, I continue to identify with that feeling whenever I go back.

“I don’t ever feel as good except when I’m at home,” Ionut says. “In the country I was born in.”


I often wonder what would have happened had I not grown up in Toronto. I keep in touch with the few relatives I know that are my age, and we seem similar in a number of ways. Ionut’s son, my cousin Octav, is in Bucharest studying to be a doctor. The last time I saw him, drinking espressos on a cobblestone street, we talked about school, his cat, and Starbucks coffee.

On my last visit, I walked up and down the halls of the University of Bucharest’s Faculty of Law, where I could easily have ended up, had things gone differently. I also consider whether I would have eventually left the country on my own. This wouldn’t be an uncommon thing, for despite the headway Romania has made over the past 25 years — financially, politically, and socially — many Romanian youth are doing just that.

“Especially now in Romania there are opportunities for smart and hard-working youth,” my parents explain. “They can apply to study or work in Europe and North America, and have a bright future anywhere they want.”

Most of my relatives say that living in Toronto has probably changed me, and that I have grown up differently than I would have ‘back home.’ At the same time, they all attest to the unwavering nature of my character. According to them, personality traverses geographical context.

“I think that everyone has a fate, and yours is destined to be to grow up in a world that needs you,” Viorica says. “You have a good path ahead of you that you build by thinking in the present and dreaming of the future, without forgetting the past.”

Viorica concludes her writing to me with a stanza from a work by the popular Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu. As translated by Corneliu M. Popescu, it reads:

Cu maine zilele-ti adaugi,

Cu ieri viata ta o scazi,

Si ai cu toate astea-n fata,

De-a pururi ziua cea de azi.

With life’s tomorrow time you grasp,

Its yesterdays you fling away

And still, in spite of all remains

Its long eternity, today.

I wanted to confront gaps in my memory, and the more common threads I pull together about my family, my heritage, and the way I live my life now, the clearer it starts to become. Forgetting is the last thing I’d want to do.

A perfect storm

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t only takes  a brief walk around campus to realize how thoroughly marijuana has worked its way into university life. Flyers that advertise cannabis culture events are stapled to soft boards, vaporizers peek out of pockets and backpacks, and the unmistakable smell of pot smoke seeps from alleyways and the windows of fraternities.

Further west into Kensington Market, the air thickens with marijuana smoke; dispensaries and head shops line the crowded streets. Beyond Kensington, cannabis culture shops continue to populate Yonge Street, Bloor Street, and Queen Street West.

The pervasiveness of marijuana use throughout the city is a perfect example of how Canadian criminal law — which prohibits recreational cannabis use — is not always sufficient to stamp out the behaviours it inhibits. Yet, a storm is brewing within the hallowed halls of Parliament: a brand new cannabis regulation system may on the horizon.

When the Liberal Party of Canada pledged to legalize marijuana during their 2015 election campaign, many welcomed the idea. Now after taking office, the Liberal government seems intent upon keeping its word.

The government has stated it will “legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana,” and it has appointed Honorable Bill Blair, Liberal Member of Parliament and former Toronto Chief of Police, to spearhead the project.

Support of the masses

Many university students stand in favour of this proposition. “I don’t think it is right that the government can decide what we want to put in or do to our bodies,” explains Serena*, a third-year student at Innis College. “If we are legally allowed to poison ourselves with alcohol and cigarettes, then I think it should be [okay] for us to be able to have a toke or two on a Saturday night.”

“I absolutely believe marijuana should be legalized,” agrees Jenny*, a second-year student at Ryerson University. “It has been proven to improve a growing list of mental illnesses and physical ailments; it allows for many to ‘cope’ with the reality inherited from a corrupt, and otherwise socially unjust society; and it expands the mind to a point of untapped potential.”

These attitudes coincide with a recorded growth of acceptance and tolerance for cannabis use in Canada. An estimated 43 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 have tried cannabis at least once in their lifetime, and a November 2015 poll revealed that 59 per cent of Canadians support its legalization, regulation, and taxation.

Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity
Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity

Dr. Patricia Erickson, professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Toronto and scientist emerita in public health and regulatory policy at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), has recently been tracing marijuana use in Canada. She states that the trend toward tolerance of cannabis has been called a ‘phenomenon of normalization’ — not only because of its prevalence but also due to an increased cultural tolerance among non-users for the activity.

“[There is] more willingness to see it as an activity that doesn’t necessarily go with being a deviant or being involved in other types of illegal activities,” Erickson explains. She emphasizes that normalization is restricted to cannabis use that does not interfere with regular activities, which means that ‘stoners’ or chronic users may still be looked down upon by their peers.

If the government is serious about legalizing marijuana, it will still need to overcome many obstacles, regardless of the apparent public support. It will take cautious consideration of how cannabis regulation will affect all domains, in order to responsibly see the project through to completion.

Locked up

Laws pertaining to all illegal drugs are included within the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). The CDSA is a federal statute that outlines all prohibitions, penalties, and procedures related to the prosecution of drug-related offences.  It classifies substances by ‘schedules’ according to severity , and cannabis, its preparations, and its derivatives are listed as Schedule II substances.

Cannabis-related offences in the CDSA include possession, trafficking, importing and exporting, and production. Many of these offences carry mandatory minimum penalties of one or two years imprisonment, especially if there are aggravating circumstances — such as  a public safety and health hazard or the involvement of persons under the age of 18. If a person is convicted of trafficking or of importing or exporting cannabis, they can potentially receive a prison sentence of 14 years.

Nevertheless, many individuals remain unaware of the prohibitions. Part of Erickson’s work has involved interviews with marijuana users whose testimonies reflect the extent of their awareness of the law.

“Many people we talked to weren’t aware that it was actually still illegal to possess cannabis,” Erickson says. “It’s sort of de facto legalized in their minds, they’re not going to get arrested or be bothered. Which, when you consider the number of users versus the number of people taken to court, they’re probably reasonably accurate.”

“It’s sort of de facto legalized in their minds, they’re not going to get arrested or be bothered. Which, when you consider the number of users versus the number of people taken to court, they’re probably reasonably accurate.”

Despite the federal government’s newfound commitment to legalization, criminal penalties are still being enforced for marijuana-related offences. In many cases, prosecutors continue to seek convictions and imprisonment, even for relatively minor offences, like possession for personal use.

Establishments that arouse the suspicions of police are also being shut down. In January 2016, Toronto police raided Good Weeds Lounge and charged the owners with possession and trafficking.

Alongside vaporizers, the lounge was known for selling marijuana, resins, and extracts. The raid came less than two weeks after a Vice News article — which featured an interview with the lounge’s owners — lauded the unbridled success of recreational marijuana shops in Toronto.

Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity
Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity

Another similar incident occurred in 2015, when the police closed down Melanheadz, a vape lounge that had been selling cannabis, extracts, and edibles without a license.

Jenny recounts two occasions on which she had been apprehended for marijuana-related infractions. The first time, she was high, and her partner, who had quit smoking marijuana the previous year, was driving her to his parents’ house. When they were pulled over for a random spot-check, an officer confiscated Jenny’s joint and let them go.

On the second occasion, the police asked to inspect Jenny’s vehicle, and they discovered cannabis residue left behind by Jenny’s partner’s friend in the backseat.

She was questioned and released with a warning, but Jenny was shaken — particularly because the officers had told her they had a file on her person from the previous incident.“Since then I have had a pretty sour taste in my mouth concerning those in authority, and their awareness about natural substances which alleviate health conditions,” Jenny says.

Lawyer Steven Tress, who practices criminal and immigration law in Toronto, has experience with marijuana-related cases. The majority of his criminal law clients have been non-violent grow-op offenders, who began growing cannabis for sale in their homes in order to ease financial troubles.

He hints at a problem inherent to the current criminalization framework: the law as it stands may target some people who are not particularly harmful or who have not committed very egregious acts.

“Almost all of the clients in that industry are not what the public would characterize as criminals,” Tress says. “They are just guys who are in financial trouble, they heard of this thing, and they decided to take the risk. And then they get caught, and you have to deal with a potential criminal record.”

In a similar vein, Erickson criticizes the current system’s rigidity, inefficiency, and injustice. She emphasizes that it shows little mercy for offenders even when they are associated with respectable operations.

“You’re putting resources into the punishment side, you’re getting no benefit from taxes, and you’re funding, in some cases, violent criminal organizations,” Erickson says. “Or, you might be going after some of the so-called mom and pop growers tucked around that, really, are often connected with the dispensaries, but they are providing services for sick people.”

“Criminal law is such a blunt instrument, isn’t it?” she adds.

The devil’s in the details

Shifting regulation of marijuana out of the crime world is easier said than done; the complexities of marijuana-related laws confuse and convolute the drug’s future trajectory.

First, there is a common confusion between decriminalization and legalization. Decriminalization would only remove criminal penalties related to a substance, while legalization would also provide a legal framework for its supply and consumption.

Though the term ‘legalization’ is favoured by the media, many experts prefer to use ‘legal regulation’ to describe the ways in which governments can control substances, when they are no longer entangled with criminality.

The landscape of legal regulation in Canada is perplexing at best. In addition to the criminal provisions listed in the CDSA, medical marijuana regulations present an entirely different beast.

Lisa Wong/The Varsity
Lisa Wong/The Varsity

Currently, the only legal way to obtain cannabis in Canada is legally though a medical professional. This allows patients to order medical cannabis through licensed Canadian producers, which are regularly inspected by Health Canada.

Rigorous and expensive government standards, however, have dashed the hopes of many potential producers; only 29 licensed Canadian medical marijuana producers are still in business.

These licensing restrictions were put into place by the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), which came into effect June 2013 and replaced the previous Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR).

Unlike the liberal conditions of the MMAR, the MMPR prohibited growth of medical marijuana outside the Health Canada licensing framework. It invalidated all previously issued licenses that enabled patients to grow their own medicine or designate others to do so on their behalf.

This sparked a court challenge to the MMPR under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the case Allard et al v. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.

The argument was that a patient’s health was compromised by allowing them to purchase only from producers that may not have adequate supply, may not carry the appropriate strain for their medical needs, or may not price products within the patient’s means.

While the court deliberated, an immediate injunction was issued; it enabled both the MMPR and the MMAR to operate simultaneously, but it still did not allow every medical user to grow their own product.

In late February 2016, the court ruled that the MMPR was in violation of the Charter and thus struck it down. The declaration of invalidity of the MMPR has been suspended for six months in order to give the government time to concoct a replacement framework of regulation.

To add to the legal and regulatory confusion, different interpretation and selective enforcement of CDSA regulations have occurred at the provincial level. The 2015 Ontario decision in R. v. Vu eliminated the six-month mandatory minimum penalty of production for the purposes of trafficking marijuana when the operation does not exceed 200 plants, but the ruling only applies within the province’s borders. Prior to this, a British Columbia provincial court judge refused to issue a mandatory minimum sentence, letting the accused go instead.

The government will need to sort out these inconsistencies when formulating new laws. If legal regulation of marijuana does occur, it will lead to a sea of change in Canadian law.

“People have talked about legalization ever since I’ve been in the field, but nobody has ever got to the point in Canada of putting out a blueprint,” says Erickson. “There’s never been a discussion of what [would happen] if we actually didn’t punish at all, but in fact, provided a legal system of availability.”

“There’s never been a discussion of what [would happen] if we actually didn’t punish at all, but in fact, provided a legal system of availability.”

Experts from different fields are in favour of legalization for a variety of reasons. Ronan Levy is the director and general counsel of Canadian Cannabis Clinics, the leading group of medical marijuana clinics in the country. He states that most individuals within the company support legal regulation. “Not, by any stretch, because we are zealous advocates of marijuana,” Levy explains. “Rather, we think legalization is a pragmatic and rational response to life in our times.”

Levy lists several potential benefits of legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use, including government tax revenues, diverting individuals away from the correctional system, and ensuring that the cannabis being provided to consumers is clean and free from lacing.

Others are more cautious in their approach to the drug. “I do think there’s reason to seriously consider de-criminalizing possession and consumption of small amounts of marijuana,” explains Vincent Chiao, assistant professor at U of T’s Faculty of Law. He adds, however, that he does not think legalization should lead to a “wild west” approach to marijuana. “Getting a clearer picture of the social and medical risks of marijuana consumption, in all its forms, and at various levels of consumption, is also important, as that will inform how to regulate and/or tax the industry,” Chiao says.

Tress also mentions that reducing the number of criminal charges for marijuana would have a positive effect on the court system; it would decrease the backlog of cases, as well as the financial cost of seeing charges through to conviction.

The realization of changes like this could shake Canada’s legal system to its core, which is why Chiao advises that progress should proceed with caution. “The devil is very much in the details here,” he says.

For some, the details are a bleak prospect. “I find that pot enthusiasts are quick to be in favour of legalization without considering the increased costs that would subsequently follow,” says Polly*, a fourth-year cinema studies student. “I’m certain that the government would seize the opportunity to tax the sale of marijuana, whether to deter its use, or simply capitalize on opportunity. Legalization means regulation, which means higher cost, restricted access for the general public, and greater punishment attributed to illegal sales.”

An international outlook

As the policy laundry list continues to grow, the government will be wise to look to others for help.

Canada is certainly not the first to make a move towards cannabis regulation. Various methods and philosophies have resulted in unique consequences for jurisdictions that have previously tackled cannabis regulation.

Perhaps most notorious for cannabis regulation is the Netherlands, which has been operating on a system of limited sale and use for nearly 40 years. Contrary to popular belief, however, marijuana remains technically illegal for the Dutch, with criminal prohibitions on cultivation and wholesale distribution.

Dutch law permits the establishment of licensed ‘coffeeshops’ or weed cafes that can sell small quantities of cannabis to buyers over the age of 18. Though the Netherlands appears to be tightening regulations in recent years, a 2015 survey found that 70 per cent of residents support looser restrictions on the cultivation of marijuna plants.

In Portugal, on the other hand, marijuana and all other drugs are decriminalized. Individuals found to be in possession of recreational drugs are treated as patients rather than offenders and encouraged to seek rehabilitation; there are still restrictions on the quantity one can possess for personal use though. Most strikingly, selling and producing marijuana and other drugs remains entirely illegal, meaning that the drug trade remains confined to precarious black market operations.

In 2014, Colorado became the first US state to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes. In 2015, the state’s total legal recreational and medicinal sales topped out at an estimated $996.2 million; the government ended up raking in more than $135 million in sales tax and licensing fees.

Since then, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC have followed suit. The legalization movement of medical marijuana in California has been in effect for two decades; it brings in an estimated $1 billion in yearly sales and is still picking up speed.

Colorado provides an interesting case study though, because it highlights both the positive and negative effects of legal cannabis regulation, many of which have yet to be measured in conclusive studies.

For example, the immense consumer demand for food products infused with cannabis was an unexpected effect of legalization. In 2014, over 2.85 million cannabis cookies, brownies, and other edibles were sold in commercial stores.

Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity
Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity

This soon proved problematic for regulators, who did not anticipate the need to indicate the amount of cannabis that could be legally included within a single serving size. After several cases of overdose, Colorado scrambled to limit the amount of cannabis per serving.

This demonstrates the complexity inherent in cannabis regulation, and the extensive maneuvering it will take to iron out the kinks of a comprehensive policy.

In Canada, the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments further complicates the situation. While criminal law is under federal jurisdiction, other spheres like healthcare and property are left to the provinces.

According to Tress, this could lead to significant disparities in legal regulation and its effects across the country.“I have a feeling that it will be left to the provinces to deal with it,” he states. “And then the problem is, different provinces have different rules… I think working out that mechanism is going to be the most problematic.”

Erickson highlights the legal challenges Canada may face on the international stage, as a signatory of the United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

This treaty might restrict Canada’s ability to legally regulate cannabis, a sticky situation that the US has bypassed because its changes in drug policy have only been made at the state level. Legalization in Canada is being spearheaded by the federal government though, which means that it will not be able to avoid the international implications.

Business is blazing

Considering the potential profits of regulation — as exemplified by some US states — its implementation will likely have an impact on the Canadian economy.

Seeing as how the demand for cannabis is not currently subsiding, its underground economy will continue to flourish, so long as it is remains illegal.

In some cases, the illegal sale of weed is elaborately planned and executed with high quality customer service. Recounting her best experience purchasing cannabis, Polly describes the sophistication of the industry in New York City. 

“The courier industry runs a sort of underground cartel there when it comes to weed,” Polly says. “If you know the right people, you can have special, unmarked packages delivered to your doorstep. If you’re not in a rush, the dealer comes to your place with a menu, tells you what sort he’s selling, and what sort of high you’ll get. It feels more like an authentic transaction than it does in Canada, to be honest.”

“It’s an elegant ordeal too — there are no dime bags like you get here,” Polly adds. “The product comes in a pill bottle, and it’s [labelled] according to the strain and the type of high you’ll get.”

Serena has had positive experiences obtaining marijuana for medical use through two Canadian compassion club memberships that require her be authorized by a medical practictioner.

“The clubs I go [to] pride themselves on quality and know what they are selling, which helps users with specific needs get what they want,” she says. “Purchasing cannabis through clubs also allows the user to go back to the club and return something if the quality is not up to par, or the effects do not assist their disability.”

If a legal supply of weed is to be made available in Canada for consumer purchase, who will be allowed to sell it needs to be considered first. As it stands, business-minded people are already hedging their bets on the regulatory framework  that might be adopted — and getting ready to pounce.

Several recent proposals reflect a ‘big-box’ retail outlook on the industry. For instance, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne has suggested that it would be prudent to sell cannabis through the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which is the regulatory system already in place for the sale of alcohol in the province.

Shoppers Drug Mart has also expressed their interest in dispensing medical marijuana from their pharmacies, an announcement that caused comedy television series This Hour Has 22 Minutes to imagine the imminent sale of ‘Life Brand marijuana.’

Tress warns of the problems with price control, if the government leaves marijuana in the hands of big businesses. “If you’re setting up pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, and they’re going to get into it, they control their own prices,” he says. “If they start charging too much, it might be cheaper to buy it on the street. Then you’re back into the crime scene.”

Smaller businesses, especially those already involved with the cannabis industry, will likely suffer if legal regulation of marijuana is controlled by large corporations.

Robin Ellins, proprietor of the cannabis culture shop Friendly Stranger, explains his outlook on the new regime: “We are looking to see a model that reflects the same type of legislation that currently governs craft brewers, with licenses for growers and retailers and proper age restrictions,” Ellins says. “The market should be allowed to thrive through thoughtful regulation and check systems, but still be in the hands of the cannabis industry and not taken over by large corporate grow-ops and narrow distribution channels.”

Paul Eichgrun is the co-owner of Cloud 9, a cannabis culture shop on Queen Street West that has been operating for 12 years. Up a steep slope of steps and tucked behind a popular burger chain, Eichgrun runs his business in a narrow, well-lit space; he sells pipes, bongs, vaporizers, and other products to cannabis enthusiasts.

He emphasizes that Cloud 9 is, first and foremost, a small business. “This is no different than me selling shoes, really,” he says. “It’s location, it’s price, it’s all those things. That’s how we’ve always looked at it.”

Predicting the course of commerce, Eichgrun feels that businesses like his will grow exponentially once marijuana laws are relaxed and the stigmas diminish. “Of course, like anything else, there will be more and more new retailers, and there will be a battle to see who survives,” he says. “I’m probably guessing there will be hundreds and hundreds in that first or second year. That’ll filter down to an appropriate number for sales. The rest won’t survive.”

“Of course, like anything else, there will be more and more new retailers, and there will be a battle to see who survives.”

For different reasons, the number of coffeeshops licensed to sell marijuana in the Netherlands has recently decreased.

Last year, 28 coffeeshops in Amsterdam were closed, due to violations of the distance requirement they must be from schools. Traditionally, the city was pretty lax about enforcing the distance rules, but it has recommitted to cracking down on crime and nuisance — including cannabis use among youth — in exchange for an exemption from the national ban on non-residents attending coffeeshops.

As of January 2016, there are an estimated 160 coffeeshops still operating in Amsterdam, but this number is constantly in flux. Canadian businesses would be wise to expect similar volatility in the marijuana industry, especially at the onset of a new regulatory regime.

There is also the matter of what will happen within the medical marijuana industry. Since the MMPR was struck down, the government has been on a tight deadline to come up with a new framework. Depending on what they cook up, the new policy may have significant impacts for marijuana-related businesses.

Legal professionals have been working on the matter of medical marijuana since long before the MMPR came into force. Lawyers Hugo Alves and Michael Lickver are two of  Canada’s leading advisors on the medical marijuana industry. Lickver works as a corporate commercial, mergers and acquisitions, securities, and corporate finance lawyer and associate at Canadian law firm Bennett Jones.

Lickver inadvertently became involved with the medical marijuana industry in his first year of practice, when he agreed to help a client on a pro bono basis; this was done on the condition that the client would return for future representation when he could pay for it. The client eventually went on to become the CEO of a medical marijuana company and, staying true to his word, marched straight back to Lickver’s office.

“That was a perfect storm,” Lickver says. “That first file was big. We were raising a couple million dollars for a start-up medical marijuana producer who had just submitted their application.”

Subsequently, Lickver and Alves devoted themselves to studying the processes that characterize the medical marijuana industry and familiarized themselves with all parties involved. Beyond production, the industry is booming with dealers, research laboratories, e-commerce specialists, and security consultants. The lawyers’ goal was to reach a more comprehensive understanding of the industry, by getting involved in as many aspects as possible.

Today, Lickver and Alves run the leading corporate law practice representing the medical marijuana industry in Canada.

When considering the future of laws on cannabis, Lickver emphasizes that the regulatory aspect must not be taken lightly. “Regulating distribution, and ensuring that those who are licensed to sell it and produce it are the only ones doing it, without creating monopoly, [and] also creating fair access to everybody who wants to get involved,” he says. “That’s probably the biggest problem.”

If the system is regulated properly, Lickver foresees overwhelmingly positive results. Particularly, he views regulation as a way to reduce the influence of the black market.

“I think black markets will always exist, [but] the better the system we implement, the smaller the black market will become,” Lickver says. “If we implement a system that restricts access, or prices it out of regular consumers’ range, then those are two things that the black market has an advantage [on] right now… If we can tackle those two large issues and make sure that it’s affordable, and people can access it easily, then I don’t see a massive need for the black market, at least to serve the domestic population in Canada.”

“I think black markets will always exist, [but] the better the system we implement, the smaller the black market will become.”

For medical purposes

As the director of Canadian Cannabis Clinics, Levy has worked with patients that have a vast array of physical and mental health problems. Cannabis has been used to alleviate symptoms of a number of different conditions, including pain-related ailments, neurological conditions, spasticity disorders, cancer- and chemotherapy-related pain, and epilepsy.

The typical medical marijuana patient at the clinic is in their late 40s or early 50s, suffers from a chronic health condition, and comes in for treatment having little to no prior knowledge of cannabis.

“Because we screen patients carefully to ensure recreational drug users are not getting prescriptions, the people you see in our waiting rooms are absolutely not the type of people you’d expect to see in a cannabis clinic,” Levy explains. “They are your neighbours, brothers, sisters, [and] parents.”

Jenny outlines the many ways in which cannabis has helped her cope with lifelong physical and mental health problems. Throughout her life, she has had problems with insomnia, which significantly effected her memory, attention, and cognitive skills. Jenny went through counseling every year of her life and lagged three grades behind her classmates in literacy. Later in her life, marijuana became an unexpected solution to her problems.

“I found myself using marijuana for recreational purposes but accidentally discovered that eliminated my life-long insomnia,” Jenny says. “I told my doctor that marijuana helped me to sleep soon after I discovered its effects and she advised me to continue using it as sleeping aid. She told me that sleeping pills are highly addictive and cause short-term memory loss, so she never prescribed them to me. I have used marijuana every day since she suggested I continue.”

Serena also says that medical marijuana has helped her cope with her physical ailments. “I have a severe back issue acknowledged by doctors, and the use of cannabis is very effective for my pain management as well as stress,” she says.

Yet cannabis is also associated with negative side effects, particularly in youth and chronic users. According to a recent CAMH study, an estimated 380,000 Canadians are affected by abuse of or dependence on cannabis, and between 76,000 and 95,000 people each year receive treatment for cannabis-related health problems.

Other risks related to cannabis use include psychological and mild physical dependence, an increased risk of developing respiratory problems and lung cancer, and the impairment of memory, attention, and complex processing. These complications are associated with heavy use, particularly by those under 25 years of age.

Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity
Julien Balbontin and Elham Numan/The Varsity

Polly can relate to these complications. “The reality is that whether it’s vapour, cigarette smoke, or weed, it’s smoke inhalation, which is bad for your lungs,” she says. “I have chronic bronchitis as a result of my relatively brief stint with marijuana, and because marijuana is illegal, the awareness is pretty low. People assume that because it’s not a cigarette, it’s not bad for you.”

Dr. Tomas Paus, senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute and Tanenbaum chair in population neuroscience and professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Toronto, has extensive experience studying the impact of drugs on the brain.

When comparing cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco, Paus states it is “very clear that all three have an impact on health.”

Paus is concerned about the potential association between chronic cannabis use and the risk of psychosis, particularly in relation to schizophrenia.“It’s clear that the acute effects of cannabis in certain individuals, even just smoking pot, can induce psychotic symptoms,” he explains.

Referring to a report his team published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of Psychiatry in 2015, Paus explains how irregularities in brain structure were observed in young men who had experimented with cannabis before the age of 16, and that they demonstrated an increased risk of developing schizophrenia. These findings are congruent with several similar studies performed within the field.

Paus cautions against simplifying the association between marijuana use and schizophrenia though. “It’s not that cannabis causes schizophrenia. There are so many different reasons why someone develops schizophrenia, both in the genes and the environment of that person, stressful events,” he says. “Cannabis is one contributing factor in some people.”

The causal relationship between cannabis use and the development of schizophrenia is also unclear, because it is possible some patients may actually seek out cannabis to cope with the troubling symptoms of emerging psychosis.

The risks of excessive use cannot be ignored though. Levy states that, while it is virtually impossible to overdose on cannabis to the point of death, many users are hospitalized due to anxiety attacks or mental health issues resulting from excessive use.

“[The] risk [of overdose] is magnified when edibles and other extracts are available, as these products have much higher concentrations,” Levy says. “Because the plasma levels of THC are less predictable when using edibles or extracts, the likelihood of taking too much increases.”

As part of the legalization process, the government must focus on educating the public about the potential risks of cannabis and encourage responsible and mindful use. In order to do this effectively, Paus says that the government can adopt strategies similar to those used to regulate alcohol and tobacco, including public health campaigns and the education of medical professionals.

Of course, as Erickson points out, the medical marijuana industry is a bit of an anomaly compared to tobacco and alcohol. This is something that will have to be accounted for within the regulations.

Both Erickson and Paus caution against using a ‘one size fits all’ message in an attempt to scare away potential users, especially young people.

“Another challenge will be how much you actually have harm reduction education in the schools… All we’ve told them so far is that it’s really dangerous,” Erickson explains. “[Now] we have a stronger foundation to do harm reduction education when we say, ‘the product is there, you’ll have to make healthy choices, think about it.’ Not just ‘don’t do it.’”

Erickson says that most users of marijuana are likely to be responsible; the government will have to ensure they are not placing undue restrictions on users, who, for the most part, are responsible in their usage.

“For most substances subject to misuse, there will be a relatively small group that will get into trouble with them, and the majority will use responsibly,” she explains. “No one wants to be a drug addict and have their lives ruined. Most people will use in moderation.”

“No one wants to be a drug addict and have their lives ruined. Most people will use in moderation.”

Eichgrun believes there should still be mechanisms in place to actively discourage retailers from selling to minors though. “There should be strict fines to any retailer who plays games,” Eichgrun emphasizes. “I don’t mean a slap on the wrist, I mean shut them down right away.”

Your move, Canada

As it stands today, the future of cannabis regulation remains uncertain. The tides are turning, and now it’s up to the government to follow through.

“Prohibition has been a very small blip on the timeline of reported cannabis usage,” Lickver says. “I think we are approaching the end of that, and there will be a global tipping point.”

“[Canada] had a very strong reputation for public health, for healthy cities, social determinants of health, [which] didn’t really jive with our pretty aggressive stance towards drug use,” Erickson explains. “I think now, we’re getting back in sync.”

From multiple perspectives, the forecast for the new regime is overwhelmingly positive. The good news for current users is that this may finally result in widespread recognition of the positive effects cannabis can have on health.

“My family recognized the positive changes marijuana brought to my life and began to encourage my [use of] it,” explains Jenny, recalling the substantial change in perspective from those around her. “Witnessing the level of success I was reaching inspired their shift in attitudes – prior to my use, they were against any drug.”

“When we first started, it was illegal to talk about cannabis,” explains Ellins. “When the laws do change we expect to see an even more accepting society, that will no longer be looking over their shoulder for fear of repercussions.”

Overall, Lickver is optimistic about the project’s future trajectory. “In five years, I think we’ll have the best-regulated marijuana legislation and economy in the world, producing the highest quality product,” he predicts. “I believe that we as Canadians, the federal government, the provincial government, will not rush this, and will work slowly and create a cohesive system.”

Yet, it is clear that the government has extensive work to do in order to adequately address some of the more concerning aspects of regulation. This will be a meticulous and time-consuming process, if they wish to be successful.

While comprehensive legislative change may take several years, cannabis culture shops show no sign of closing, and students will continue to light up. The law is often slow to catch up to society’s reality. For now, we wait.

*Name has been changed at the individual’s request.

Correction (April 5th, 2016): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Dr. Patricia Erickson is an adjunct professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Toronto. In fact, she is a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Toronto.

“Terrible things happen”

“I believe everyone has a story,” said Wali Shah, a student at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). “Your struggle may be completely different than mine… I can’t say that my story is more or less powerful in any way.”

On the surface, Shah is an average sociology student, yet, there are many ways in which he is exceptional. Named one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 in 2014, Shah is a musician and motivational speaker whose message has reached over 50,000 students and professionals.

Most recently, he partnered with the Peel School Board to reach students in Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon with an original song, entitled “Change the World.”

Shah has a compelling story to tell. Faced with extremely high cultural pressures at a young age, he began to seek belonging in “friends that weren’t really the best of friends.” When he was only 15 years old Shah was arrested and charged with assault.

“I was arrested in front of my family… I remember i t was like a movie,” Shah discloses. “[The officer] started cuffing me and I heard the sound of the click …as soon as he opened the door, I turned my head to my right and at that exact same moment, my mom and my little sister, who was four years old, and my brother, who was about 10, they were walking out of the building. And immediately, everything in my world just broke.”

The lowest moments

The moment of his arrest still resonates powerfully in Shah’s mind.

“ …My mom just started running,” he continues, “We started pulling out of the driveway, and she started yelling at the top of her lungs, ‘Where’s my son going? Give me my son back, I can’t live without my son.’ I remember those words like they’re etched in my brain.”

Shah was taken to a police station and placed in a cell. Eventually, he was released from custody and the charges against him were dropped.

Yet, the experience had profound effects on Shah. He recalls returning to school and experiencing mental health issues, worrying about how to make his parents happy again.

“I think it was a learning experience, like a wake-up call or a lesson,” Shah reflected “I knew that I didn’t [want to] be in that position anymore. I had to change what I was saying, how I was acting, make positive decisions for my future.”

Unknown narratives

Shah’s ability to overcome obstacles is exceptional, but his experience with criminal justice may not be unique.

In fact, many others have had similar experiences at U of T. While the university does not require students to disclose their criminal history when they apply for admission, professors recall students coming forward when faced with experiences in the criminal justice system. Dr. Scot Wortley, associate professor at the Centre for Criminology, is one such professor.

“I’ve had individuals who have been arrested for crimes as young offenders and as adults, including several gang members, an individual who was convicted of manslaughter, and individuals who have been arrested for drug-related offences,” he said. “All of these students had dramatically turned their lives around, and were looking at university as an avenue towards engagement in the legitimate economy. ”To Wortley, this is heartening.

“ …[T]hey are also a testimony to the fact that mistakes conducted early in your life do not seal your fate,” he explained.

Yet, unlike Shah, few individuals who have had experiences are willing to speak out.

“I think there’s a lot of hidden stuff that you wouldn’t know about,” said Dr. Anthony Doob, Professor Emeritus at the Centre for Criminology. “ …Things happen to students… terrible things happen, and they don’t think that the university can respond to [them].”

Doob recalled an experience from prior years of teaching in which a student had been hesitant to disclose the details of her criminal involvement.

Following a police raid, the student had been arrested for possession of narcotics, and was released from custody hours before she was scheduled to write a test. Extremely distressed, but lacking a medical excuse, the student rushed to class assuming she would be required to complete the assessment. After approaching her and finding out what had happened, Doob sent her home and arranged a make-up test. “Nobody’s gonna make up these stories,” Doob said. “But you could easily see, in a big university like this, where you go to the website and there’s rules about doctor’s notes… and having to document everything, that somebody could say… these things aren’t covered by this.”

Doob cited the fear of potential stigmatization as an important reason for why students stay silent.

“We have thousands of faculty who teach,” Doob said. “Some of them, maybe most of them, would be understanding, and a lot of them won’t be.”

He added that it is up to students to take the initiative and volunteer their criminal history, in order to find out whether accommodations can be made.

Understanding the system

Many youth commit offenses which has led criminologists to hypothesize about the reasons behind criminal behaviour — which, in turn helps justice officials understand how to better handle young offenders.

Theories on the causes of youth crime can vary drastically. Dr. Victoria Sytsma, assistant professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, cites just a few reasons why youth may turn to crime.

“There are a number of known risk factors with regard to youth crime,” Sytsma explains. “These factors include low social capital… delinquent peer groups, [and] residing in neighborhoods plagued by high unemployment rates and limited access to social services.”

Wortley addressed whether students in university may fall into these categories.

“I think when you’re looking at a population like the University of Toronto, you’re looking at a pretty privileged group of students,” Wortley explained. “Even if they do come from poor, disadvantaged communities, they’ve likely overcome the odds to get to U of T.”

“If anything, I would think drug use and vice-related crimes are probably more prevalent among the affluent,” he added.

Avenues for support

The fact that students who have gone through the criminal justice system largely do not feel comfortable coming forward with their stories makes it difficult for the university to provide them with support.

Currently, the university offers a variety of services for students dealing with personal problems. However, students who are seeking support specifically due to criminal involvement have no place to go.

Wortley explained the reasoning behind this omission. “ …[I]t’s [difficult] at this time to document whether there’s a special need for support services for students with a criminal record,” he said.

Whether or not it is practical for the university to establish a service specifically for students involved in the criminal justice system is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, the potential consequences of having a criminal record can be dire.

“Where a criminal record could negatively impact someone would be in the seeking of employment,” Wortley said. “…There may be students who can perform at a high level within the university environment, but be disadvantaged when getting a full-time job after graduation because they have a criminal record.”

Having a criminal record may also affect a student’s ability to find part-time employment or volunteer opportunities during their studies. Even if a position is not technically restricted, evidence of a criminal background puts applicants in a negative light. If students are repeatedly denied access to these opportunities, they could face perpetual difficulties in improving their resumes, or applying to graduate or professional programs.

“It is crucial to keep non-serious and first time offenders out of the system as much as possible through the use of extra-judicial measures,” Sytsma emphasized, “which do not leave youth with a criminal record.”

This considered, it is interesting to see how institutions beyond the university level handle youth justice. The diversion program at Aboriginal Legal Services (ALS), for example, aims to redirect Aboriginal offenders away from prisons and rehabilitate them back into the community.

Colette McCombs, manager of the Community Council Program at ALS, explains how the process works. “ …[W]hen an individual is charged, they appear before the criminal court, and at that point, our court workers will interview them to see if they’re eligible for diversion… We then take them out of the criminal justice system and place them before members of the community.”

According to the council’s decisions, individuals are required to complete certain tasks in order to avoid a jail sentence. Past decisions have included mandated community service, craft-making, attending treatment programs, and participating in traditional ceremonies.

McCombs emphasized the importance of such programs in light of the negative experiences Aboriginal offenders, especially youth, often have within the justice system.

“I think a lot of the youth have had negative experiences with police, so right away, they’re put in a position where they’re in fear of the criminal justice system,” McCombs said. “ …I think that anybody who’s been through the criminal justice system and can compare it to their experience coming here through the diversion program, they can see a vast difference.”

Through integrating rehabilitative measures with the justice system, ALS has observed positive results like those that McCombs describes. The Council also helps Aboriginal youth establish strong ties to a cultural community within the city of Toronto.

“ …I think there’s a lot of things that could be said about the successes of the program,” McCombs said.  “Just seeing people come in and actually successfully complete something in their lives, where a lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to ever successfully complete something… that’s remarkable to watch.

Moving forward

Many students may be dealing with the reality of a criminal past. According to Doob, it is imperative that they take the initiative to speak to others and seek help if they need it.

“We do offer student counseling and student assistance programs that are open to any student,” Wortley said. “…[M]aybe the way to reach students with a criminal background who may require additional support is to just advertise those services to everybody.”

Shah cited the UTM Health and Counselling Centre as an excellent resource, and hopes that the university will continue to invest in counselling services for its students.

In light of his passion for music and spoken word poetry, Shah also urged the university to invest in more creative activities. He recommends “…giving students an opportunity to express their stories and express, not only their artistic ideas, but their academic ideas in an artistic way.” In lieu of purely academic assignments, Shah would appreciate more classroom evaluations that integrate components of creative expression.

“I think the fact that students are able to rise from criminal behaviour… to actively engage, and often at a high level, in the university environment, is testimony that people deserve a second chance and proof that they can be rehabilitated,” Wortley says.

Shah emphasized that the key to moving forward is dialogue. “ …I went through this, but everyone goes through something,” he said. “…[W]e shouldn’t be scared to talk about that …I think that’s where a lot of change starts, having that discussion.”

Language of lotus

Communication can take on many forms — as it turns out, it may be even more flexible than it seems.

Yoga and meditation can be restorative and liberating practices. “Yoga means ‘to join’ or to ‘yolk together,’” says Hetal Patel, studio manager and yoga instructor at Seva Yoga Yorkville. “It’s supposed to be a harmonization between your mind, body, and soul.”

“Our body is a vehicle through which we meet the world,” Colin Matthews, founder and director of Kula Yoga, says, adding, “Part of [the yoga practice] is about influencing your own vehicle or your vessel through what you’re choosing to focus on… choosing an intention about how you want to meet yourself.”

The introspective practice, of meditation further contributes to personal growth. Though it takes a long time to master, it can be liberating to narrow the mind’s focus to certain ideas, or even just to focus on the inhale and exhale of the breath — leaving worries outside of the studio altogether.

“Meditation is about cultivating a space of listening that’s non-reactive,” Matthews says, explaining that it’s important to consider how we deal with our varying emotional states.

“Being able to traverse [different] personal terrains in a non-reactive way is a really important skill to be able to cultivate as a human being,” says Matthews.

According to Patel, individuals who enter the yoga studio often leave with a complete shift in perspective, a “renewed sense of purpose” week by week. The connection between that purpose and self-expression is essential.

“If you are practiced in organizing your thoughts and maintaining a state of calm, decision-making and expression becomes more authentic,” says Jessica Darzinskas, instructor at IAM Yoga, adding, “You are communicating from a place that is more connected to your values, goals and dreams.”

A safe space

In order to express themselves, individuals must be able to open themselves up without fear of judgment; an accepting environment is crucial for this process.

“We want to make sure [the environment is] non-judgmental, non-competitive, somewhere people feel comfortable,” Patel says. “That they can work on their mind and body without really feeling judged or feeling like they lack skill. We want to make sure we give everybody the option to be able to practice at their full potential.”

Yoga studios are constantly developing new ways of creating this type of environment for their students. IAM Yoga offers a variety of mental health-focused programs, including neuro yoga, which uses targeted breathing techniques to encourage positive brain activity.

Kula Yoga’s positive space initiatives advocate for the acceptance of all of its students, regardless of ethnic background, gender, or body type. The emphasis is placed on a judgment-free environment, and relies on specialized classes — such as queer yoga — to create a safe space for students who may otherwise feel marginalized or excluded.

“We’re trying to create an environment that supports introspection and curiosity within,” Matthews says, “and the ability to go to excavate in places that may be hard to excavate in on a regular basis. …The philosophy behind some of the positive space initiatives [is] to create a space where people can feel safe… where they’re gonna be valued for the process that they’re going through.”

However, Matthews clarifies that yoga is about more than just an “it’s all good” mentality. It’s equally important to provide a space for individuals who are struggling or going through hardships: a space of healing as well as positivity.

“We’re multifaceted beings and we have a whole variety of things that we go through and we deal with on a regular basis,” Matthews says. “Having an environment that allows for the full authentic expression of what’s going on for you, as opposed to just an isolated spectrum, [is important].”

Forging your own path

Yoga can be a driving force for expression, creativity, and personal freedom. According to Matthews, this is something that individuals should certainly take advantage of.

“I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that little kids are so mobile and so imaginative,” Matthews says. “[And] I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as we age and we get a little more set in our ways, we also get more set in our body… Part of practicing yoga is to stay supple in your body, in your imagination, in your relationship to possibilities,” he adds.

“Yoga really taps into that inner creativity,” says Patel, mentioning that many artists, like actors or singers, practice yoga for the same reasons. “It’s a positive, open space. You’re open to new ideas… And that [helps] you become a little bit more creative, helps you find different ways you can express yourself,” she says.

Patel mentions the unique bridge social media can build between yoga and self-expression—one that spurred her own process towards becoming a yoga teacher. Social media platforms, like Instagram, allow individuals to document their day-to-day journeys. Users can post pictures of yoga poses to express their thoughts and feelings on a variety of topics.

Yoga poses in themselves are symbolic: they can represent anything from independence to introspection to revelation. The poses offer an unconventional means of communication for individuals who may not be able to put their feelings into words.

“[Yoga] allows you to really not be afraid to tell people, or be public about, how you feel,” Patel says. “I definitely think it has given me a lot of self-confidence.”

The principles taken from yoga and meditation practices can easily translate into everyday life. Subtle changes within an individual’s mindset can be enough to solidify more positive forms of self-expression.

“I find people are really negative on a day-to-day basis,” Patel says. “Whether you know it or not, you engage in a lot of negative words, like ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t be able to’… With yoga and meditation… you’re making yourself able to do something… ‘I can, I am happy… I don’t have any fear.’”

By encouraging positivity, self-compassion, and personal growth, yoga and meditation tie together the necessary elements for self-expression. These strategies can be applied to overcome personal obstacles in other areas of our lives.

“How you do anything is how you do everything,” Matthews says, quoting one of his favourite phrases in yoga. “When you come to practice yoga, that’s an ‘anything,’ that’s something that you get to choose how to do. And then that carries on in your life.”