Tag Archives: Winter Magazine 2019

The right to be forgotten

In 2011, Tyler*, in his late twenties, met up with a woman at a downtown bar and, after a few drinks, they went back to his apartment. Toronto Police later opened an investigation into Tyler and charged him with sexual assault. He appeared in court for the first time on December 31, 2011. These facts, a matter of public record, were reported in the Toronto Star and The Varsity. Ten months later, the charges were withdrawn, but this development was never reported on, and there is no more readily-available public information on Tyler’s case.

Open and shut, without much closure. But that, really, is only the beginning of this story.

I don’t think there was any failure on the behalf of the media to continue following Tyler’s case. A late follow-up to an otherwise relatively insignificant and anonymous crime story isn’t exactly at the heart of public interest. The Varsity never reported on Tyler in isolation but as part of a larger story on sexual assault on and around campus, and the Toronto Star’s coverage consisted of a terse breaking news piece that would have gone online and immediately been forgotten among dozens of similar articles. Tyler neither is nor was particularly important; no journalist would have had any cause to go searching through court files to prove or disprove any wrongdoing. He was never convicted of sexual assault, or any other crime that I’m aware of, but the lack of information clarifying this is ominous.

And he claims that it ruined his life.

Over the past few months, Tyler, now into his thirties, a concerned ex-fiancée, and his current partner have been in touch with me. They want me to help them erase all evidence of Tyler’s sexual assault charge from the internet, and I don’t know to what extent I’m willing to help them do it. At the very least, I have tried answering some very meaningful questions about The Varsity’s role as a newspaper of record and source of archival information.

Tyler wants us to de-list his name from the web page that holds a digital copy of the newspaper from 2012 in which his charge of sexual assault is referenced. If you search Tyler’s name on Google, this web page comes up around the fourth page of results. De-listing entails removing a web page from a search engine index, or isolating and removing certain search terms on that web page from an index. In this case, Tyler’s name itself is on the web page, and that’s the search term.

While I’m not sure I buy into the fact that this blemish on Tyler’s searchable history is the root of all of his problems, he makes an impassioned case for it. He claims that he’s struggled to find work because search results make it appear that he’s a sexual criminal. He also says that a severe medical condition he has since been diagnosed with was brought on in part from the stress that this ordeal has put on him.

Tyler was successful in having the Toronto Star de-list his name from its website: the article on his charge of sexual assault doesn’t come up in a Google search, though it can be found through the Star’s internal search engine. An editor’s note dated 2015 also clarifies that the charges against him were dropped. However, the story on Tyler doesn’t appear to have ever run in print in the Star, so it is unlikely to face the same dilemma that The Varsity currently finds itself in.

The Varsity also acquiesced to a request from Tyler in 2015. When one of my predecessors removed the reference to Tyler’s case from the original article on thevarsity.ca, it was accompanied by an editor’s note detailing why the change was made. I think this is consistent with our Code of Journalistic Ethics, which stipulates our editorial operations and makes specific note of when and how we’re supposed to remove content from our website — in this case, when it can be shown that the content is no longer accurate.

But our archives are a completely different beast than the living, breathing thevarsity.ca. It appears impossible on our end to de-list just Tyler’s name from the digitally-hosted print archive without also de-listing all other terms from that same issue hosted online. It’s the search engines themselves, and not our digital archives, that find Tyler’s name in those old PDFs and bring them to the fourth page of Google.

De-listing the entire issue would effectively make all the other content in that issue of The Varsity nearly impossible to find via a search engine. While we usually balance the content of a single article against the harm it may pose to a person or the public interest, in this case we’re balancing the content of an entire print issue of a newspaper. As for tampering with the existing archival files, I simply won’t do that — the whole point of an archive, after all, is preservation.

Tyler’s argument with us lies at the crux of a legal question unique to the internet age, and one that he often defers to alongside his plea for compassion: the ‘right to be forgotten.’ This right is, in essence, the ability of individuals to live their lives without being stigmatized as a result of past actions. The relative permanence of the internet and ease with which people’s histories can be called up has made this proposed right more salient in the last two decades.

The right to be forgotten has existed in the European Union since 2012 and has been successfully upheld in court cases across the continent. Google has removed millions of links from its indices in Europe. This right has also been invoked in Argentina, since 2006, though the law is more specific to images than text. In all of these cases however, the responsibility falls on individuals to petition search engines themselves, not the original outlet of publication, to de-list the results in question. My gut tells me that Tyler’s tried this but to no avail, because there’s no basis for search engines to comply with an inconsistent ethical standard unenforceable by Canadian law. They don’t give a shit about Tyler, but we’re supposed to.

The right to be forgotten is gaining some traction in Canada. In September 2018, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien asked the Federal Court to make a decision on the matter. This hasn’t stirred up much fervour so far, though the group Canadian Journalists for Free Expression calls the right to be forgotten “large-scale private censorship,” and it isn’t alone in identifying the tension between a right to be forgotten and freedom of expression.

An email from Tyler’s partner that I received in January includes the following: “We collectively appeal to your goodwill and conscience to make a one time exception to your mandate, and provide us necessary relief to sustain a normal life.” Is clarifying Tyler’s lack of criminal guilt more valuable than the accessibility of The Varsity’s archives, or is this about something bigger?

Even if it’s true that we have a right to be forgotten, to what end, and at what cost to access to information? If an individual has a right to be forgotten, does information likewise have a right to be remembered?

I’m not really sure, and I don’t think you should be either.

*Name changed

Talking to technology

Our technologies talk to us, but despite the glimmer of novelty usually imposed on voice technologies, they aren’t that new.

Siri has been reading us the weather for over seven years now, and, historically, talking computers date back to 1952, when the University of Edinburgh created the Parametric Artificial Talker (PAT), which was one of the first computers to transmit artificially generated sounds. Today, more people talk to technology than ever before. As of 2017, there are over 700 million iPhone users worldwide and over 20 million Alexa devices have been sold. As of last year, there are over 500 million devices equipped with Google Assistant.

Usually, when we think about verbal interactions with technology, we default to two distinct tropes. The first is viewing voice technologies as a joke. There’s a myriad of YouTube videos featuring kids playing tricks on Alexa or listicles of funny things you can ask Siri (if you like a good dad joke, I suggest asking Siri why fire trucks are red). The second is our fear of voice technologies. Often, we imagine these devices as one degree away from the robot apocalypse or the creepy human-technological relations portrayed in films like Ex Machina (2014) and Her (2013). In fact, when I first pitched this article topic at the magazine meeting, someone shared that they once overheard their eight-year-old sibling saying “I love you” to Alexa. Everyone around the table either gasped, cringed, or shook their head.

I think the relationships between people and their voice technologies are more complex than we like to think they are.

To understand these relationships, I’m putting aside some very real fears about theses technologies, such as surveillance and security concerns (you might want to look into how much your device listens to you or what happens to your data). I want to unpack the relationships between people and their voice technologies because I think it’s interesting that all these talking technologies are gaining popularity at a time when popular discourse might have you thinking that we don’t ‘talk’ or ‘share our feelings’ anymore.

Talking is a distinct mediation of our relationship with technology. It’s different than writing down our thoughts or touching our screens. If we can communicate via touch or language, why do we feel the need to talk to our technologies? What makes these interactions unique?

Cristina Poindexter, a former voice technology researcher at Google, explains that “social interactions teach us. It doesn’t matter if they’re with beings that are clearly alive, or with technology that occupies some uncanny middle.” She suggests that conversations with these technologies are just a new and different kind of social connection. Conversely, Sherry Turkle, an author and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor, insists that conversations with robots lead to robotic conversations between humans. “As we treat machines as if they were almost human, we develop habits that have us treating human beings as almost-machines,” according to Turkle.

Talking to technology is especially contested when the tech users are children.

One New York man reported that the first words his toddler learned were “mom,” “dad,” “cat,” and “Alexa.” Also, communication breakdowns between children and voice technologies can be confusing — until very recently, voice technologies were programmed to respond to adult voices. Parents also fear that barking commands at Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant teaches their children to be rude or bossy.

However, early studies at MIT suggest that children are well aware that these devices are not real people. Research has also found that sophisticated voice technology designed to interact with children can assist kids struggling with language or speech development. Voice technologies could also provide companionship to socially isolated children, building their confidence until they feel comfortable speaking with their peers. As for Alexa making kids rude: experts at Carnegie Mellon University actually think teaching kids to say “please” and “thank you” to Alexa blurs the line between humans and technology, further confusing how we treat people versus how we treat robots.

Another example of the intricate relationships between people and voice technologies occurs within the realm of therapy, health, and care. Services like The Difference — an on-demand service provided through Alexa — provide therapy and counselling for people with less money, difficulty finding someone they trust, or a desire to remain anonymous. Socially isolated individuals such as seniors or neurologically atypical people may also find comfort and companionship in voice technologies. Alexa can also assist these individuals in care practices like reminding them to take their medication. Yet it becomes tricky when these technologies begin to replace the care we extend to each other. On the other hand, would people who rely on these technologies be better off if the robot wasn’t there and they had nobody to talk to?

So what does this have to do with anonymity, intimacy, and relationships? Are we risking our ability to communicate with each other for the opportunity to interact anonymously? Conversations between human beings and their voice technologies fall at the centre of a complicated debate about human technological relations. One thing is for sure: as voice technologies become increasingly ubiquitous, we need to confront some difficult questions, and we can only do that if we understand the full scope of the relationship between humans and their voice technologies.

The year of bloom

I developed a real love for putting my thoughts on paper at a relatively early age. By age nine, I was spending hours and hours every week writing stories in a notebook. Soon, writing stories became a part of my daily to-do list. They would read: “TO DO: 1. Read” (here I would draw a small empty box beside my task), “2. Write” (and again I would scribble an empty box), “3. Organize ‘xyz,’” where ‘xyz’ was any of the many rotating items I hoarded in my childhood bedroom (and yet again, an empty box was drawn, just waiting to be ticked).

My best friend Caitrin appeared to both eat books and write, a productivity level of which I was always so jealous. The writing eventually became a task for me, something I did just to have something over her, just for once. But for a long time, we wrote, danced, sang, and put on plays and musicals like no one was watching. Or, rather, like they were watching, and they adored us no matter what we did. We shone as absolutely bright as we could.

Caitrin and I, along with our three other friends, began passing around a diary — equipped with an unbreakable lock and key — every day to record our deepest, darkest secrets and thoughts (mostly about our respective crushes) and to navigate the objectively horrible world of bloating, stretching, and bumping bodies into which we were beginning to enter. Every five days, I would pore over “The Book,” as we called it, drinking in all I could from my friends’ streams of consciousness, and it would give me the space and the comfort to write as freely as they did. When middle school started, “The Book” ended, and so did our friendship. The four other girls were put in a different class and a sourness grew between us because of the separation. Likely other things too.

TARA MAHONEY

All of a sudden, forced to make new friends in this new, weird body, I became aware of myself. And so, in the same ways that I tweaked my appearance and speech, I changed my writing. The combination of middle school — a Catholic one, no less — puberty, and uncertain friendships was a toxic cocktail. Did I mention that I was overweight?

By this point in my life, each expressive action became an opportunity for self-loathing. I wanted to erase everything that my younger self had loved and make myself anew. I lost 30 pounds. I worked to expunge the things I deemed to be part of the old me, who no one seemed to like, including myself, and I become a clone of everyone else, anonymous and indiscernible amid a sea of middle schoolers in uniform tartan skirts and polo tees.

Fast forward through an arts program at Canterbury High School, where I did very little writing, to September 2012, when I entered George Brown Theatre School. The unofficial mission of George Brown, and many other theatre schools, seems to be of breaking down students completely as individuals in order to build them back up in their own image. I was naïve to think that this was okay. The competitive audition process made the offer that much more enticing. How could a 19-year-old have known what that entailed?

While at theatre school, I learned two things. The first thing I learned was from my voice teacher, Deborah, about the growth of the voice inside the human body. She told us that as babies, we speak, sing, and cry with open vocal chords. The flow of air is unobstructed in our voice boxes, passing through seamlessly enough that we can cry — or sing or speak — for the whole day without losing our voices.

As we grow older and things happen to us, most of us develop vocal tics, habits, and ways of speaking that reflect our life experiences. For instance, many of us press on our vocal cords without noticing, making it more difficult for air to pass through and tiring out our voice boxes.

TARA MAHONEY

It’s why stage actors do so much vocal training; they must free their voices in order to manipulate them effectively and safely and have the endurance to do the work of acting on a stage every night. In other words, many of us have altered our ‘true’ voice, which is unhindered by the extra things we have added to it as we have aged, instead holding what we should deal with externally in our vocal cords.

And this leads to the other thing I learned from another teacher, Leslie. Though she assigned movement journals in which we described what the alignment work that we did that day was and how it was changing us, she asked us to not write a stream of consciousness right after doing the work for a character. She explained that, for her, writing something down put it out of the body, and the nature of the work we were doing required that it be kept inside of us to be used to its full potential.

I never got to the ‘build you back up’ part of George Brown. I was in too many pieces at the end of first year to return to theatre school. One of my acting teachers asked me why I was so presumptuous to believe that people wanted to listen to me talk, and — in front of 30 of my peers — told me that I needed to be more interesting. He told me to think about what I was about to say before I said it because no one wanted to hear me figure it out. I believed him; my youth and Catholic school background were perfect breeding grounds for that kind of language. My peers and I heard things like this from our teachers regularly. We were, for that year, a great mass of throbbing pain, a dysfunctional organism, and none of us seemed to exist without the rest of the group.

It was no surprise when one of my teachers recommended I try — on top of our 50–60 hour school week — a 12-week program for damaged creatives called “The Artist’s Way.” This program is largely centred around a tool called “Morning Pages,” wherein participants record three handwritten pages of their thoughts each day. Through this and other tasks, the broken artist comes to understand the useless rhetoric that inhibits them from creating, and then systematically dismantles it to free the ‘artist child’ within. The pages did help me start to find a voice; I used them to tell the theatre school that I would not be returning, but I never used it to act again.

When I met my partner, he helped me understand that I was good. I get some of the credit, too, but he made the path easy. And then, slowly, more expressive actions flowed. I talked about things that I didn’t know about; I became curious and comfortable with the fact that I would never know everything.

By the time I got around to my undergrad, I had tackled some of the self-confidence problems socially — still working on some of them as I write this, of course — and vocally, but when I needed to type out an essay, I couldn’t overcome the voice of my acting teacher inside me. Writing for other eyes was paralyzing. I spent so many hours typing and then hitting backspace, afraid to let what I had in me flow through my fingers like they did with the morning pages. Instead, I heard my acting teacher loud and clear in my head. For a long time, I couldn’t write a thing.

I went to an event honouring the life and legacy of my great-uncle Joseph one night. I had forgotten about him completely — he had passed away very suddenly at 57 when I was four years old — so it was surprising to be reminded that he had been the food editor for Toronto Life magazine for many years, and had gotten started there writing food reviews. I had, at that point, begun writing recipes and restaurant reviews. I felt a strange connection with him, though we hadn’t really known each other, and became fascinated by his life.

TARA MAHONEY

Naturally, the first place I checked for information about him was the internet. To my absolute shock, there was pretty much nothing on my uncle Joseph out there. This horrified me a little bit, only because it caused me to face my own mortality; we all disappear eventually. Though he’s relatively obscure in ways I am still not comfortable with, at the time, it felt like Joseph had reached through history and grabbed me by my shoulders to remind me of the four-year-old great-niece whom he used to watch running around the lawn in front of the family cottage.

In January, I turned 25. It was the first birthday I felt melancholy about and I was caught off guard when this blueness swelled up inside me. The blue continued to grow, making my throat feel sticky and heavy and my eyes sting. It grew so big and intrusive that it had to exit my body. I belted blue from my deepest, in a song and a conversation I needed to have that would change my whole life. The quality of this new voice, that of a grown woman, is uniquely my own.

Perhaps, for the first time in my life, it occurs to me that I am okay with that, even thrilled by it. It makes me think of the little girl who would dance, sing, write, and scream with such reckless abandon. Going forward, especially in those moments of sticky insecurity, she is the person and the voice I want to channel.

Funny how life is circular like that. 

Letter from the Editors

We’re not entirely sure what anonymity means to us. In some ways, the idea of being totally unknown is liberating — but in others, it’s fucking scary. Articles and photos in our magazine address ambivalences like this. In fact, a lot of them grapple with the murkiness of being young today. The shared subtext between our three main sections — online, self, connect — is a vague sense of unease. Our features break them up, in sharp rupture.

We live in a political order that attempts to atomize us. To make us smaller, unknown to ourselves and others. We’re driven into and by technology engineered to exploit us. To make us known and knowable to corporations. A twenty-first century experience is a dialectic of anonymity: we’re entirely transparent and absolutely isolated.

To begin to cope, we have to come together. A real collective isn’t a monolith, but a shifting mass. We need to reject systems and strategies that silo us. To reach for one another, to let ourselves be reached. There is power in this kind of anonymity. A power we can seize.

— Kate & Pearl

Don’t be a woman, be a #girlboss

In 2014, then 30-year-old Nasty Gal clothing founder and CEO Sophia Amoruso published a memoir and business guide. She called it #Girlboss and, in doing so, officially christened and generated a new way of being a young woman.

Heavily informed by post-2008 economic precarity and institutional disillusionment, the original girlboss figure is aggressive, individualistic, and prides herself on being ‘self-made.’ She does not fit Sheryl Sandberg’s mom-CEO vision of corporate feminism — girlbosses typically eschew children and traditional gender roles, instead tying themselves to their productive labour and capacity for economic achievement.

Since its inception, the term has entered the cultural vernacular, spawning a specifically millennial ethos and aesthetic. In effect, girlbossery is founded on the ultimate neoliberal sleight of hand: obscuring collectivization with consumptive self-actualization. Brought into existence by processes of self-surveillance, online performance, and observation, girlbosses model behaviour to one another and police one another’s compliance to shifting norms.

As independent women, girlbosses do not rely on men to govern or discipline their behaviour — rather, they surveil themselves. This manifests both physically, through regimes such as extreme dieting, and psychologically, through a dry-eyed pursuit of constant positivity. The common metric is agency — girlbosses can do or have whatever they want, as long as they’re the ones who choose it.

But if every choice is autonomous and internally generated, why are the basic goalposts to which these women orient themselves so uniform, irregardless of class, race, sexual orientation, or any other systemic lever?

Here, instead of a strictly disciplinary regime imposed by men or patriarchal structures, the girlboss exists in what philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls a society of control, wherein the “controls are a modulation,” flexible and constantly evolving. As these controls are further internalized, they constitute the girlboss’ very subjectivity, endowing her with a limited agency that ultimately serves existing structures of power. The starkly sexualized aesthetic of Amoruso’s fashion retailer, Nasty Gal, reflects this: the company tells women to dress for themselves, but offers clothing, such as corsets and high heels, that emphasizes fantastic representations of feminine sexuality and plays into common conceptions of heterosexual male desire.

Moreover, the work of a girlboss is never done. She, in Deleuze’s words, is “undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network” of both self-improvement and online performance. She can always be more, look better, feel better, act better: to not be in a constant state of striving is failure. Further, as a co-constitutive phenomenon, the hashtag #girlboss has been used on Instagram alone over 14 million times, beneath images ranging from inspirational quotes like “Shit happens everyday. To everyone. The difference is how you respond to it,” to women posing in lingerie. Girlbossery requires performance, but with that comes discrete behavioural parameters, structures of control that spring up around this newly generated way to be.

SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Discourse policing surrounding the #MeToo movement demonstrates the power of these behavioural limits. In theory, girlbosses support female empowerment, so to question any iteration of the movement would be a colossal betrayal — and when mutineers do, they’re quickly exiled or #cancelled. But this abject dismissal of any critical reflection perverts the power of what critical feminist theorist Nancy Fraser calls “subaltern counterpublics” of traditionally feminist spaces of discourse. Instead of offering a “parallel discursive [arena] where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs,” the #girlboss movement actively undermines attempts to engage in communicative processes that challenge dominant perspectives. The online nature of being a girlboss cannot be underestimated — if technocracy is a runaway train, girlbosses eagerly tie themselves to the tracks.

But beyond this regulatory cancel culture, the mainstream media’s presentation of women’s #MeToo testimonies invites scrutiny. Set in tones so standardized that they seem to represent a new genre of writing entirely, these stories almost universally offer incredibly detailed and explicit retellings of trauma, often to the point of dilute pornography. While this confessional, salacious style might provoke compassion or self-reflection in some, I question its genuine capacity to help women move forward. In my interpretation, there is an uneasy exegesis of desire in these narratives. The vindictive edge and bloodiness that underwrites them seems to reflect a sublimated want for the very qualities that aggressors act through: dominance, impunity, a siloing self-absorption: privilege. To what emancipatory end does this propel us?

At her core, the girlboss represents the ideal neoliberal subject, who, as political theorist Wendy Brown writes, “strategizes for [her]self among various social, political and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options.” Identified as an “entrepreneurial [actor] in every sphere of life,” the girlboss “bears full responsibility for the consequences of [her] action no matter how severe the constraints on this action.” But she is still gendered.

In media culture, it is overwhelmingly women, not men, who are the target of aesthetic or behavioural improvement campaigns. In doing this work to transform through products, clothes, and services that they ‘autonomously’ choose, girlbosses are further constructed as consumer-citizens. Deeper resentments are then funnelled into pre-set choices — bikini or full Brazilian wax? — instead of toward collective action or organization.

Much as disciples of Sandberg’s mom-CEO doctrine may rely on foreign domestic workers to perform their reproductive labour while they hack at glass ceilings, girlbosses also propagate global inequalities and structures that actively harm women — or, in the case of Nasty Gal’s production practices, literal girls. Recently, Nasty Gal came under scrutiny for using cotton sourced from sites known to engage in labour abuse and child labour. The company was also sued for discrimination after firing four pregnant employees before they could take maternity leave. The case was settled out of court.

Mom-CEOs and girlbosses share one central trait: an assertion that they deserve to have it all — even if that involves standing on the backs of poor and racialized women across the globe. For girlbosses, who are overwhelmingly white, middle to upper class women, this manifests in their consumptive choices and devotion to maintaining the capitalist order. In philosopher Louis Althusser’s framing, these women are key actors in reproducing relations of production, through their ability to manipulate labour power and a concerted devotion to fitting themselves into the ideology of the ruling class.

This was painfully obvious in the 2016 US election. Girlbosses shilled for neoliberal queen Hillary Clinton in record numbers, but attacked other women who supported Bernie Sanders and his social-democratic policies for being ‘anti-feminist.’ The irony here is too richly obvious to restate. Their rhetoric of independence also reaffirms arguments for decreasing public services and increasing privatization, which historian Bethany Moreton rightly notes, “returns the full burden of savage inequality to its reliable point of origin”: poor women of colour.

After Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy in 2016, Amoruso started a Silicon Valley-funded media company called — of course — Girlboss. She now hosts ‘empowerment rallies,’ which cost a minimum of $300 USD per ticket to attend, including integrated advertising with self-proclaimed feminist corporations, such as dating app Bumble. Amoruso’s new website also offers articles such as “25 Gifts That Will Help Make Your Loved Ones More Productive” — highlights include a tiny vacuum to optimize desk cleaning, Alexa, and running shoes — and “When Your Biggest Competition Is Your Best Friend.” Her life story also spawned a short-lived series on Netflix, also called Girlboss. The show received appropriately terrible reviews and was not renewed for a second season.

The term ‘girlboss’ generated a new way to be a woman in the twenty-first century, intimately linked to neoliberal structures of control and subjectivity. But much like the cheap clothes Amoruso used to sell, the girlboss movement is initially a neoliberal success that is ultimately doomed to fail women.

Faces in the crowd

As residents of the most populated city in Canada, we’re rarely alone when we go outside, or even at home — the cost of living is so high that it’s a true luxury for anyone to live alone. But how well do we know the people in our community? How often do you strike up a conversation with your neighbour, or even the kid sitting next to you in class?

These were some of the first things I noticed when I moved to Toronto from Winnipeg. With a population of over 700,000, Winnipeg can in no way be considered a small town, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the size of Toronto. And given the sheer size and sprawl of Winnipeg relative to its population, residents tend to find themselves physically alone quite often. I, for one, never had trouble finding an empty park or even a pleasant, bump-free walk on a downtown pathway. But rarely do you really feel alone. So from where I’m standing, Winnipeg is pretty damn small in comparison.

There’s a chasmic difference between being physically alone in a space and feeling alone — that gut emptiness of feeling entirely unknown by the world around you. Back in Winnipeg, if you did happen to stroll past someone on the sidewalk, or see someone walking their dog in the park, you would surely strike up a conversation — even if you had never met the person before. It was also quite difficult to go anywhere without bumping into someone you knew, or someone who knew someone you knew. It was practically impossible to go anywhere in Winnipeg where you didn’t engage in some type of small talk with someone, and this made me feel as though I was really a part of the community, that we lived up to our name as friendly Manitobans.

While the community was much smaller, the ties that bound its members together were much stronger. In that way, it was much harder to feel isolated, even though, in actuality, Winnipeg is a completely isolated city. There’s practically nothing beside Winnipeg: the nearest big cities are Calgary to the west and Toronto to the east. Many skeptics would further argue that there’s nothing in Winnipeg either. But I digress. Back home, I would never be worried if my car broke down in the middle of the bitterly cold winter, because I knew that there would be a kind stranger who would pull over to help me out or offer to buy me a warm cup of coffee in the meantime. And I would do the same for them. Would that happen in Toronto? I hope so, but I’m not so sure.

When I first moved to Toronto, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people. But at the same time, I had never felt so isolated. People don’t stop to chat at streetcar stops, and they barely look each other in the eye. If someone bumps into you on the street, which always seems to happen, they never look over their shoulder to say “excuse me” or “sorry,” which was genuinely striking to me. It appeared as though everyone was living in their own isolated bubble, completely disconnected from one another in a crowd of almost three million people. I felt absolutely anonymous. Going out into a world where no one knew you and no one seemed to care about you was initially very unsettling.

Now, this isn’t to say that I hate living in metropolitan cities. Being unknown helped me develop a stronger sense of independence and resilience. I learned that I can’t always rely on friendly strangers to help me out, and thus needed to learn how to help myself.

For some people, this bubble of anonymity isn’t daunting at all — instead, it’s what draws them to the city. It’s true that in Winnipeg, your reputation would often precede you, and it was rather hard to change perceptions of you once people’s minds had been made. My friends back home often ask me, with a certain degree of envy, what it’s like to go out and not run into anyone you know, or what it’s like to pretend to be anyone you want without someone calling your bluff. In Toronto, you can be anyone you want, and no one would be the wiser of who you were yesterday.

I would warn you that this may sound a lot nicer than it actually is. The ability to make strong connections with a smaller group of people is so much more rewarding than getting lost in the crowd. But you can only have these kinds of realizations after living in the city and understanding what it means to simply be another face among millions. And among those millions, you can eke out a little space for yourself — a micro-community, where everybody knows your name. But who knows? For you, anonymity might be the best thing that’s ever happened. The only way to know is to pack up your bags — at least once — and try something else.

Canada’s newest colonial project wants you to do nothing

While the Canadian state speaks reconciliation out of one side of its mouth, its courts and state-issued special Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) task forces are colonizing, with state violence, the Indigenous people in so-called North America. From genocide, to forced assimilation, to violent paternalism, the rhetoric of our nation-state has changed, but its goal remains the same. Where the case for defending the settler situation is indisputably weak, the eradication of Indigenous people has arguably been Canada’s goal regardless of its national program du jour. A recent court injunction against the territories of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, in so-called British Columbia, led to a militarized police raid in early January that was backed by TransCanada, owner of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

On January 7, the Canadian state forcibly broke through the Gidimt’en checkpoint, arresting 14 land and water defenders. The Canadian state and Coastal GasLink have violated Article 10 of the United Nations’ Declaration of Rights for Indigenous People, which claims that “Indigenous people shall not be forcibly removed from their land or territories.” Further, actions for the Coastal GasLink project on Unist’ot’en land, in the Wet’suwet’en Nation, are allegedly in violation of the Wildlife Act of 1985 through the ongoing bulldozing and destruction of Unist’ot’en land and traplines without prior consultation. It is entirely significant that these violations and acts of colonialism are disrupting the Healing Centre in Unist’ot’en, which is dedicated to bringing wellness to Indigenous survivors of intergenerational trauma from colonial violence. We can view what happened at Unist’ot’en as blatant affirmation that the war on ‘Indians’ in Canada remains the true political agenda in spite of Justin’s dreamy tears of reconciliation. We must stand with the Wet’suwet’en Nation.

On a cold, mid-January night, I sat down with Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, a Two-Spirit artist, educator, and land and water protector, to learn about Wet’suwet’en’s international call for solidarity and the meaning of being a supportive accomplice. We exchange small talk and academic woes as I fiddle with the recording equipment. When we begin, Jeffrey sighs and clears his throat. There is a lot to say, and he speaks it slowly with a warm humour that houses his critical edge. Our conversation is non-linear; we both recognize that a straight narrative would not be queer enough for the task. Instead what follows is a collage of wisdom from one land and water protector, filtered through the normative system of the written English language. 

“My name is Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, I am Tk’emlúpsemc,” he begins. “I come from the Secwepemc Nation, which is an Indigenous nation that is one of the largest land masses in so-called British Columbia. It’s in the central interior, in the south. But I’m also fourth-generation English settler. My mom is third generation; her name is Jackie McNeil. My father was Jeff Seymour — I’m a junior, I don’t talk about that very often, so don’t ever call me that.” The humour. After a brief pause, he continues, “Yeah, English and Indigenous. So I’m constantly in a state of trying to colonize myself and decolonize.” He looks up and laughs, “It’s good times.”

Jeffrey recently moved to Toronto — the colonial appropriation of the Mohawk tkaronto — and has been one of the many who are organizing and mobilizing in response to the Wet’suwet’en call. If you were present, in person or over Facebook live streams, at the January 9 shut down of the Bloor Viaduct, you heard Jeffrey speak.

THEO ARBEZ/THE VARSITY

When I ask about the RCMP’s actions in early January, Jeffrey shares a story. He’s a remarkable storyteller and nothing, save listening to him speak, can do his stories justice. His framing is nothing short of powerful. “While Justin Trudeau was skiing in [Whistler], the RCMP went into the Unist’ot’en camp and tore down the encampment, forcibly removing — in handcuffs even — with semi-automatic rifles and combat gear, peaceful Indigenous land and water defenders.”

Jeffrey explains that there is no treaty between Canada and the people of the Wet’suwet’en Nation that would sanction these actions, and that the RCMP are acting without grounds or authority. “So, in essence, what we’ve witnessed with this is,” he pauses to clear his throat and build dramatic tension, “imperialism.” Jeffrey laughs. Humour with an edge. At one point, Jeffrey jokes that Trudeau should replace his Indigenous shoulder tattoo — yes, he has one, look it up — with an active Death Star, Death Star II, or even a Starkiller Base — the three most destructive weapons in Star Wars. A glorious idea.

The call for solidarity with Wet’suwet’en is to “shut it down,” explains Jeffrey. “Shut Canada down.” The purpose of this action, Jeffrey elaborates, would be to make the Canadian nation-state “feel that economic interruption, of the flow of money, of goods, of our conveniences. That’s really what it’s about.” The hour-long shutdown of the Bloor Viaduct was just the beginning, says Jeffrey. “But what we were doing there,” he continues, “where we blocked the highway, was also in recognition of what the river once was.”

In 1787, the Don River was ‘acquired’ by the federal government in the Toronto Purchase, which took land from the Mississaugas under the pretense of a loan. The river has since been straightened, paved over, and polluted in continuing acts of urbanization. “We look at water as being alive, as having a consciousness; it remembers everything,” explains Jeffrey. “For me, if there’s water in the room, it’s like a bible,” he laughs. “You know, I —” he thinks on his words a moment, “always speak your truth and talk to the water, but where we stood on the bridge was directly over the river, and so, our prayers and our work for that particular interruption was centred in perhaps a lament of the current state of that waterway.”

Contextualizing further, Jeffrey outlines how the spread of foreign illness through colonial contact in so-called British Columbia was succeeded by the implementation of residential schools. The RCMP’s continued bullying of northwestern Indigenous people is made possible, Jeffrey explains, by the second wave of diseases that decimated Indigenous populations in the late 1700s. “Indigenous nations numbered in the hundred-thousands plus [were reduced] to just under a quarter of that. Even fewer than that.” This wave of disease spread through Jeffrey’s own nation, he tells me. And he describes how another village in Kamloops of 1,000 people was impacted: “Just over 250 people survived and,” he pauses as his gaze drifts elsewhere, “that’s real,” he pauses again, “you know, that trauma. And then the residential school went in Kamloops, so it’s just like thing after thing after thing. So the traumatic experience of witnessing this again is just like,” Jeffrey redirects his thought to a pointed declaration, “people think of colonialism as in the past, or how residential schools have been apologized for.” He scoffs as he says “apologized.”  It’s as though, he continues, assuming the voice of the Canadian state, “we’ve said sorry for it yet we’re still going to fuck your shit up. We still want you dead, we still want to ‘take care of Indian problem’ and that means either assimilate or die.”

While the violence against people of the Wet’suwet’en Nation is enacted by a militarized task force implemented by the Canadian state and in conjunction with TransCanada, such occurrences are made possible through the silence and inaction of every Canadian settler (non-Indigenous person). In a quick side note, Jeffrey explains how ‘settler’ is a contested term among non-Indigenous persons for its “negative connotations” and for seemingly denying Canadians of a “sense of attachment or belongingness to the places that they have a few generations of history on, versus since time immemorial with Indigenous people.”

He stresses the importance of knowing one’s history of entry into Canada and the ways in which one’s ancestors entered Indigenous lands. As a fourth-generation English settler, Jeffrey describes his great-grandmother’s entry to Peachland, in the Okanagan Valley, in Sylix territory. Bringing awareness to these intersecting histories is the work of an accomplice to Indigenous people and efforts to decolonize. “Canada has routinely denied its citizens an opportunity to have a relationship with Indigenous people that’s not in an appropriative or in an ‘owned-ownership’ kind of setting.” As he continues, a coy look grows on his face and his voice drops to a dramatic whisper, “Like, Indigenous people are Canadians — in the reverse,” he laughs.

Jeffrey shares that, when he thinks of anonymity, he thinks of Canadians purposefully kept in the dark about the state’s actions against Indigenous people. This leads, he argues, to a condition of “ignorant bliss,” where, “for whatever reason, on some level, Indigenous people are automatically inscribed in people’s imaginations as being,” he pauses, and continues carefully, “the cause of the current situation. So that keeps the average Canadian safe in their anonymity of what their true feelings are about Indigenous people.” Proving Jeffrey’s point, the Canadian government sanctioned a risk assessment four years ago to determine whether or not there would be significant backlash against a raid on the Unist’ot’en camp for the pipeline. The assessment found that a raid would incite a nationwide response, but ultimately deemed the risk ‘medium-low’ due to a suspected lack of support for the Indigenous; the government factored in Canadian apathy and surmised that the Indigenous communities’ response would not be heeded by any majority.

Further weaponizing anonymity, the police special task force jammed all cellular communications to and from those at the Gidimt’en checkpoint before the raid, rendering the Wet’suwet’en struggle and voices unheard and unknowable to Canadians. Speaking to the centrality of digital communications for organizing, Jeffrey tells me thoughtfully: “I think while some people really criticize ‘slacktivists,’ it’s important work that people do, and [by] keeping other people informed and reposting and sharing and retweeting and doing all those things; that digital technology piece is a very powerful tool and a very necessary one. But if they have cellphone cancelling technology then,” he continues in a higher-pitched voice, “it kind of interrupts the moment.” He laughs and shakes his head. His humour is integral to his politics.

Even language has the potential to be a colonial weapon, which is why, Jeffrey sternly informs me, “It’s very important we don’t label them as protesters or activists — that we call them defenders. Because that’s what our calling is. An innate connection to land, to water, to the spirits within those things or on those things is how we arrive in service to future generations.” In order for settlers to be accomplices to Indigenous defenders, it is also important to move beyond the popular notion of allyship. Jeffrey first explains what allyship is: “Allyship is for a person who is just kind of like ‘waking up.’ And allyship still has the ability of a person self-ordaining themselves or anointing themselves with that without ever actually having to confront those uncomfortable moments or uncomfortable feelings that are a part of the decolonial process or the consciousness raising process.”

The big distinction between that and accompliceship, he explains, is that accomplices are recognized by members of the Indigenous communities with which they work. An accomplice, Jeffrey defines, is someone who “actively take[s] up the work that Indigenous people no longer deem as their work anymore, and actively use their privilege to be able to unsettle spaces — to be able to turn the gaze back onto their own communities and have those difficult conversations of doing the hard work of spiritual consciousness raising, of confronting deeply embedded racism. But then also, too — the accomplice is also thinking about their own intergenerational trauma. Because that’s a thing too. The intergenerational trauma exists for everyone.”

There are not enough accomplices. Trudeau and the Canadian government could count on this. They could safely count on the nation to fail to stand together in support of the people from the Wet’suwet’en Nation. Where do we go from here? What are the next steps? I asked Jeffrey to speak pointedly to you, dear reader. And here’s what he said: “Bystanding? No. You have to find where you can step in. And maybe that is through anonymity. Perhaps you, you know, are sympathetic to the cause and find ways to fund the front line. Donate to the Tiny House Warriors. Support people like Christi Belcourt and Isaac Murdoch, [who] travel doing art builds with communities across all of North America.”

“Question why the RCMP are not being investigated for the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans, and Two-Spirit girls and people… No more bystanding. And we all have to start putting our best foot forward and having an active role in demanding and co-imagining a Canada where equity, and the health of the land and the water and all of the furred and the winged, the seen and the unseen, are all centred alongside, with children and women and all of the marginalized people in Canada. Or the world for that matter.”

“We have to start standing up for something and we have to start now. We don’t have a lot of time left.”

The encroachment on Wet’suwet’en land is ongoing. TransCanada is winning in its rapacious takeover of occupied lands for colossal profits for a few. The destruction of their land is occurring as I type this and as you read this.

For more information, updates, ways to support, and links to donate, visit Unistoten.camp.

Building from scratch

When my roommate and I walk into Fran’s at one in the morning, our favourite waitress greets us and asks me about that one teaching assistant who I’m terrified of. This ritual feels like home to me.

But this familiarity is relatively new. This is not how things were a few months ago. Like a lot of students, I had high expectations for my university experience and living the adult life that I had always envisioned for myself. Inevitably, however, after the ‘glamour’ of orientation wore off, and midterms and assignments began piling up, the loneliness set in.

When you are in a new city, with no support system in place and no idea how to handle things you don’t even know about, it is very easy to burn out. As I had thrown my University of Toronto Students’ Union health insurance brochures away in September, I had no idea that I could access affordable mental health care until this January. The health plan covers $125 per session for 20 sessions a year with a licensed psychologist. Knowing this would have made my first semester a lot less of an isolated nightmare.

If the infamous Instagram confession page @uoftears__ is to be consulted, an alarming number of first-year students find themselves in situations similar to or even worse than my own. It is comforting, however, to know that what you are experiencing is not anomalous.

Hannah Green, a first-year student, finds it hard to see Toronto as her home. Despite the comfort of living with a close high school friend, she describes her first semester as “okay” and she still doesn’t think the university is “communal” or “friendly.”

She is not the only one who feels that way. Dania Asahi Ogie, a first-year commuter student, found herself becoming closer with her friend group from high school, as they all struggled to make new friends and ended up talking to each other more. She found it harder to make friends at first, because of how big UTSG and its classes are. “You start getting used to sitting alone in a big lecture,” she remarked, “I mean, I wasn’t expecting U of T to be this warm, friendly, school-spirited community, but when I visit schools like Ryerson, I feel like it’s much more warm.”

However, this has not been the case for Joshua Varughese, an international student from Australia. As an engineering student, he met most of his friends in the first few weeks of the fall semester, and because they were all in the same program, most of them were in all his classes. Furthermore, as most engineering students end up living at Chestnut Residence, Joshua included, it helped him build a community that may have made his experience easier than that of other first years. Despite his positive experiences, Joshua agrees that Toronto is not a very communal city. “Living in a city just doesn’t give me the same homely feeling.”

Community building seems to be the hardest obstacle for incoming students. Megan Pham-Quan, a second-year student who is part of the Innis College Student Society, faced the same challenge. “It was extremely difficult to find a community for myself in first year. While U of T is brimming with opportunities, this environment can be overwhelming for an incoming student thrown into a new academic and social context.”

Ravinder Hans, another first-year student, lived off-campus for the first month of the fall semester and experienced this same difficulty. She ended up moving into a residence because it was much easier for her to meet people and build a community there. Megan, like Ravinder, also found a lot of support through her residence as a lot of emotional guidance and resources are offered through residences.

Sophie Shah, a second-year international student from Texas, dealt with her loneliness by connecting with family whom she hadn’t realized were in the area. As she had a huge family base in her hometown, building a relationship with her aunt and cousins in Toronto helped to comfort her through the homesickness and isolation that she was experiencing. “The fact that they were related made me feel secure.”

For Dania, comfort and support came from joining Han Voice UofT, a non-profit that spreads awareness about the plight of human rights in North Korea and advocates for the rights of North Korean refugees. Joining the organization allowed her to meet upper-year students who have helped her settle in and feel less lost in the vastness of the crowd.

On the other hand, Austin Smith, another first-year student, found it easier to build a community by putting himself out there. He said, “Toronto, in general, isn’t super friendly. U of T can be — but it is kind of difficult. Try finding someone you share a big common interest [with] and you can start to connect with them over that. Also, it never hurts to try and make them laugh.”

Eventually, all of them did manage to build their own communities, both in the city and at U of T. Sophie likes to visit Shoppers Drug Mart at the Eaton Centre at random times. Joshua and his friends bonded over a shopping trip to Iqbal Halal Foods before going camping. Ravinder loves Black Market Vintage on Queen Street West, as everything in the store fits her aesthetic well. Dania and her friends have a local Chatime they always find themselves at.

By having their own spaces outside of the university, they feel more attached to the idea of Toronto as home — even if it’s only a temporary one.

Vignettes

anonymous

is the secret pleasure

of smoldering at a stranger

on the street,

knowing your eyes —

let alone you —

will never

again meet.

 

looking in from the outside

guessing at the life that happens

behind the orange glow

of a stranger’s window at night.

a story — like so many —

that isn’t yours to know.

 

the way an old person looks at a child

warms and breaks the heart.

two strangers share

the deepest stare.

 

a man wearing a denim jacket

and worn denim jeans

picked up a cigarette butt

from the sidewalk,

inhaling the final word

of a stranger’s seven-minute story.

No credit, please

Journalism is a public practice: it requires serving the public interest and in turn earning public trust. But what happens when a story that is of public interest requires a level of privacy that seems to undermine credibility and public trust? That is the ethical dilemma of anonymity that journalists face.

As student journalists, it is no less important for us to reflect on the decision-making procedures that go into the use of anonymity. Despite all the costs and risks, anonymity is sometimes worth it.

The straight story

Aversion to anonymity in a public practice like journalism is understandable, but arguably ahistorical. The most famously cited example of such reporting is that of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. In 1972, the Washington Post reporters covered the Watergate scandal, which led to the downfall of the Nixon presidency. The catch is that they relied on anonymous sources to break the story.

It is important to clarify that anonymous sources mean confidential, unnamed, or background sources. Their identities are known by the reporter, but the information they provide is not ultimately attributed to them.

Revealing a given source’s identity can lead to retribution for both source and reporter, whether in their physical safety or employment prospects. Without source anonymity, some stories may otherwise never be told.

But public trust is always at stake. Readers have reason to be skeptical: if a claim is not attributed to any named person, it is difficult to know if they are telling the truth and how to hold them accountable. The public may especially scrutinize organizations that do not have a long-established reputation or record that justifies trust in anonymous sources, which may be particularly true for campus newspapers. It is therefore incumbent on journalists to use anonymous sources cautiously and sparingly, and to follow strict guidelines when doing so.

Double obligation

Organizations like the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) or the Society of Professional Journalists elaborate on when journalists should decide to use anonymous sources. According to the CAJ’s Ethics Guidelines, if there is a high public interest in what the source has to say and there is no alternative access to that information, then the journalist has reason to use such sources.

But journalists can nonetheless take steps to increase credibility and ensure that what they are gathering is indeed true. For example, they might gain the permission of a senior editor and ensure that they are aware of the identity and material of the source.

The source should be carefully vetted for their reliability and reasons for coming forward. There should be no malicious motive underlying the information they provide. For instance, as the CAJ notes, they should not “take cheap shots at individuals or organizations.” Given the lack of accountability, anonymity could perhaps give the source licence to make exaggerated, opinionated, or speculative assessments.

When describing the source in their reporting, the journalist should ensure that they contextualize the person in question as transparently as possible without exposing their identity altogether. If the journalist fails to protect their source, they risk damaging the reputation of the entire publication and any future prospects of anonymous sources coming forward. As The Varsity’s Code of Journalistic Ethics clearly states, “Journalists must protect the anonymity of sources to whom they have given such assurances.” Ultimately, journalists are obligated to the trust of both the readership and their source.

Due diligence

The Varsity’s News Editor Josie Kao explained the customary process that the News team undergoes in such scenarios.

According to Kao, anonymous sources are used as little as possible and anonymity is granted “on a case-by-case basis.” Editor-in-Chief Jack Denton elaborated that fear for safety, security, and reputation are good reasons for granting it. Other student-run campus papers also cite justifications like the prospect of mental, physical, sexual, or financial harm.

Kao gives the example of her September story on Test and Exam Services invigilators who spoke out against training sessions that included discriminatory content about students with disabilities.

Although an initial invigilator had already been public about the issue on social media and spoke on the record for Kao’s story, she connected Kao to co-workers who were willing to corroborate. However, they only agreed to proceed if guaranteed anonymity, given their fear of losing their jobs.

“For any anonymous source, the section editor and the editor-in-chief have to know about their entire background,” Kao stressed. “We don’t publish without doing our due diligence.”

This introduces particular challenges to the writing process. “For anonymous sources, we usually confirm with them about how they want to be described. For the invigilators’ story, this was already very difficult because they are a small group of people and any information can be easily identifiable,” she explained. “We definitely spent a lot of time working with them, getting their consent about their description… it took much longer than the regular one-week cycle.”   

Kao admitted that “maybe there’s a better way to be transparent about the editing process” to ensure readers are aware of the intense process behind the decision. At the University of Ottawa, Features Editor of student paper The Fulcrum Matt Gergyek is currently using anonymous sources to cover a story on student involvement in sugar dating for income. Gergyek suggested attaching the paper’s policy on anonymity alongside an explanation about how sources were vetted and why identities are being concealed to the article in question to preemptively address issues of public trust.

Procedures at other campus newspapers vary. At the University of Calgary, student paper The Gauntlet follows a similar process to The Varsity in that the editor-in-chief, news editor, and reporter in question must be fully aware of the background of the source.

At The McGill Daily, one of McGill University’s student papers, Coordinating Editor Lydia Bhattacharya indicated that an editor using anonymous sources has to consult with management to verify credibility — contact is made with the source — and ensure anonymity is maintained. The Fulcrum’s Editor-in-Chief, Anchal Sharma, doesn’t believe that using anonymous sources undermines the credibility of an article, especially when multiple sources corroborate the claims.

At The Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia’s main student paper, the process is somewhat more rigorous. Coordinating Editor Sam McCabe explained that if a reporter wishes to use an anonymous source, it must be approved by the section editor, followed by the coordinating editor, and ultimately two-thirds of the entire editorial team.

Given that anonymity undermines credibility, McCabe explained, this lengthy process “forces writers and editors to really consider why they may or may not grant certain requests.” Furthermore, The Ubyssey always seeks on-the-record and background sources to verify claims made by anonymous sources for due diligence.

For some smaller papers here at U of T, anonymous sources are not allowed. The Mike’s Editor-in-Chief Aaron Panciera explained that this is due to a lack of experience with anonymous sourcing, resources required to vet anonymous sources, and reputation to legitimize their use.

SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Telling a story that doesn’t point fingers

While the credibility of anonymous sources is particularly important for hard news, there is a distinction to be drawn for other forms of writing. The respective Editors-in-Chief for Ryerson University’s Eyeopener and Western University’s Western Gazette, Jacob Dubé and Michael Conley both agree that a source’s personal experience or feelings about an issue do not pose as much of a liability as, for instance, allegations against an individual or organization.

In this regard, narrative-style feature reporting is usually more flexible than hard news: it tells a story that does not point fingers, but provides voice to vulnerability.

For instance, with the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, former Varsity Comment Editor Teodora Pasca has written a series of pieces on ordinary people’s experiences of online sexual harassment.

The guarantee of anonymity — in the form of a pseudonym — was crucial to bringing forward respondents when she sent out requests, especially in big U of T Facebook groups. “When you’re dealing with moments of vulnerability and uncomfortable sexual experiences, a lot of people won’t want to share them, especially if you’re printing them. A Google search can be uncomfortable since the narrative gets associated with their name,” said Pasca.

Pasca’s interviews asked open-ended questions that enabled respondents to speak openly and “tell their story from start to finish.”

“They rarely get an opportunity to explain everything that has happened,” said Pasca, “and then have that narrative be incorporated with other [people’s].” Pasca also made sure to share transcripts with respondents to ensure that they were pleased with the product, even though anonymity was already guaranteed. Transcripts  were also made available for readers to “hear” the full story.

As a journalist, Pasca had to approach with care, because “people were sharing things with me that they didn’t share with a lot of people in their lives — there’s an element of trust.” Given that the material was “heavy, disappointing, and infuriating… you don’t want to have people share something with you and then not relay it properly or do anything at all.”

Clearly, the responsibility of the journalist goes beyond just sharing something of public interest — like harassment — while also respecting the privacy of the source. In some cases, public interest is secondary, and the goal is instead to have the story and the person who lived the story be recognized. When asked if her intent was to spark a conversation about sexual violence, Pasca explained that, instead, “it’s about listening. I want people to listen to other people’s experiences, and acknowledge that it happened.”

While a news reporting perspective  on sexual harassment often involves an accusation, which requires  getting comment from the accused, corroboration, and using words like “alleged,” the feature format allowed Pasca to focus on one side of the story that was “cathartic and meaningful for people to read.” In this sense, anonymity didn’t undermine credibility, since it’s not primarily about whether or not you believe a source experienced an incident. It’s simply about ensuring that their story is heard.

A similarly sensitive issue is youth homelessness in Toronto, which former Photo Editor Steven Lee and and current Deputy News Editor Ilya Bañares wrote about in last year’s winter magazine. They wrote this story to address education systems that don’t adequately support their students. They are “ignored if unsuccessful, revered if successful,” noted Lee.

Lee found that it was imperative to protect the identity of the youth who were interviewed, given the stigma of “uselessness, laziness, [and] desperation” associated with homelessness that could further expose them to bullying and discrimination. According to Lee, many of them “have worked really hard to distance themselves from said stigma in certain company,” including friends and teachers, “to retain a semblance of normalcy in their life.” Hence, they were asked how they wanted to be described in the piece and given untraceable monikers.

Whether in the cases of Pasca or Lee, the style for feature writing did not require a rigorous vetting process for the sources because they were not making accusations that heightened liability. They were just telling their stories. Given the sensitivity of these subjects, the position of the journalist and the personal stake they have in the subject also matters.

For instance, Pasca is a woman, and as such acknowledged that this likely had something to do with sources — mostly also women — being willing to speak to her. She was also invested in the subject given her own experiences of harassment. Likewise, Lee’s own experience of homelessness informed his interest in and ability to access homeless youth sources.

Authorless

But anonymous sourcing isn’t the only form of anonymity in journalism. An overlooked but equally important discussion is of anonymous bylines.

Last fall, The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed entitled, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” A note prefaces the article to explain the byline. “We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”

Among other matters, the op-ed drew controversy and criticism for its anonymity. Readers argued that an author should not just stand by but defend their own words, especially where accusations are concerned.

Other campus papers are also ambivalent toward anonymous bylines, although exceptions are made in the case of personal opinion pieces that could lead to significant retribution for authors. For example, Bhattacharya noted that The McGill Daily is willing to give anonymous bylines to protect an author’s personal safety, referring to instances when authors feared being doxxed by Canary Mission after criticizing Israel’s occupation of Palestine in their articles.

In 2017, The Varsity did grant authorial anonymity — for a photo-essay. The series was of Honest Ed’s prior to its complete demolition. To take the photos, the photographer, referred to as Cameron*, had to trespass. They described how it was “an impulsive decision for what I consider historically vital photos.” In recognizing the risks, Cameron “wanted to retain anonymity to avoid any potential legal ramifications.”

Collective voice

Editorials, which are opinion pieces written by the masthead, offer another avenue to examine anonymous bylines. Some campus papers use unsigned editorials, in which the article is accredited to the editorial board of the paper, as is the case with major publications like The New York Times or Toronto Star. In these cases, the individual authors of the editorial remain anonymous.

The Varsity’s operating policy mandates the practice of unsigned editorials to “represent the opinion of the newspaper as a whole.” Every semester, the masthead elects a group of individuals to serve on the editorial board, of which the Comment Editor is always chair. The identities of the other members are not made public, to ensure a confidential process in which members are free from external influence and scrutiny.

The benefit of unsigned editorials is that readers are focused on the argument and analysis at hand rather than the authors and their potential biases. This unity as the collective voice of a journalistic institution projects authority and power in advocacy.

The importance of the editorial board is further accentuated by the fact that, while conflict may exist privately, Varsity masthead members cannot publicly write individual opinion pieces to ensure that they don’t potentially conflict with the editorial position.

The Gazette also uses unsigned editorials, but always finds a way to incorporate the opinions of minority voices. It’s important that the public cannot identify any one individual author because, as Conley noted, “our organization is, like any organization, an organism in of itself.”

Papers with coordinating editors, like The McGill Daily and The Ubyssey, also use unsigned editorials, but claim to be less hierarchical and more democratic in that consensus from the entire editorial team is necessary.

However, some, like The Eyeopener, prefer signed editorials. These are accredited to individual writers because, as Dubé put it, “knowing the previous work, opinions, and interests of an editorial writer allows the reader to place their opinion within the greater context of the issue and consider its impact accordingly.”

Whether a paper uses an unsigned, signed, or hybrid system for editorials, considering the power and limitations of anonymity is essential as the writers grapple with public trust and transparency.

Who said, or what is said?

When it comes to anonymity, we are often focused on credibility. Readers want to know who is behind the stories they read. Without an answer, there is less accountability and trust. Nevertheless, a story or perspective should not be discounted simply because the identity of the source or author is concealed.

There is no question that due diligence is essential and papers should be transparent about their editorial decisions. But sometimes, to best serve the public interest, readers should read carefully for a moment before asking questions and making accusations. Otherwise, some stories might never be told.

*Name changed, for reasons explained above.