Humanize the Hood

Lawrence Heights, a neighbourhood in northwest Toronto, can be a dangerous place to live. One young man hopes to change that.

By Ryan Fernando | Featured image courtesy of Serge van Neck via Unsplash

On August 24, 2010, Dejazmatch James and 10 friends shot hoops at a net owned by a neighbour in Lawrence Heights, an area in the northwest of Toronto, much to the chagrin of the elderly Asian man who lived next door.

‘‘Hey, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. You guys go inside!’’ the man said.

‘‘Shut up! We’re not going inside,’’ a few of James’ friends said as they played for at least another hour before heading home.

Later, the teenagers spent the balmy and sunny afternoon and early evening on one of the group’s front yards. Summer break was drawing to a close and James would soon return as a senior at Sir Sandford Fleming Academy, a public high school in Lawrence Heights.

As James and his comrades lolled about, a car skulked towards them. The teens immediately became alert. ‘‘Whenever we see a car drive, we literally stop whatever we’re doing and we just pay attention,’’ James says. ‘‘We start asking, ‘Who’s that? Why are they driving so slow? Has anyone seen that car before?’ All these paranoid questions. And sometimes, the reality is that the person driving the car is just a taxi driver or a lost Uber driver looking for a number. But sometimes it’s exactly what we’re anticipating.’’ 

When the car stopped, a man stepped out. At first, it seemed like he was heading straight towards the teens, but he veered to his right and started shooting his gun. Some of the teens ducked for cover, others retreated inside a friend’s house. But James and a Somali friend, Bashiir (a pseudonym), vaulted over a fence and ran as fast as they could away from the commotion. Running for their lives, their calves burning, James and Bashiir made a beeline for the latter’s house. Bashiir’s mother, having heard the shots, quickly ushered the boys inside. 

‘‘Come! Run in here!’’

James hyperventilated from exhaustion and pulsating adrenaline as he continued to hear gunshots. As it was Ramadan and almost time to break fast, Bashiir’s mother offered James samosas to calm his nerves, and he graciously wolfed down the fried pastries. Ten minutes later, when the shots ceased, James and his friends, all unharmed, reconvened at their friend’s yard where they bantered about who ran the fastest. But then, one of them spotted a body on the ground a few yards away. They found a young black man whom they hadn’t noticed earlier. His head had been pierced by a bullet and he was bleeding profusely. 

The young man, 24-year-old Randy Malcolm, was rushed to the hospital in critical condition but later died. A security camera near the shooting captured the suspect, a black man dressed in an oversized white T-shirt, running and getting into a Nissan Maxima. At home the following day, seeing the news of Malcolm’s death on TV, James’ dark brown eyes brimmed with tears and his usual ear-to-ear smile curled into a frown.

“Toronto police often attribute shootings to animosity between city gangs, who typically form as a response to socio-economic troubles.”

This turbulent episode from a decade ago is one of many instances on now 27-year-old James’ ever-growing list of experiences with gun violence in Lawrence Heights, a diverse neighbourhood in North York. This area is where James spent years meticulously planning at which hours he should go out and what routes to take, choosing his friends wisely, looking over his shoulder, flinching at loud noises or sudden movements and mourning deaths in his neighbourhood. 

Despite being located near Toronto’s famously bustling Yorkdale Shopping Centre, Lawrence Heights is beset by poverty, drug trafficking and gun violence. In 2020, Toronto police reported 449 firearm shootings, resulting in 39 people dead and 174 injured. 

Toronto police often attribute shootings to animosity between city gangs, who typically form as a response to socio-economic troubles. ‘‘It’s about the convergence of poverty, neighbourhood, education, socioeconomic disadvantage, life choices, options, mentorship and safety,” Carmela Murdocca, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology of York University, says. “These factors in our city lead people to being more susceptible to violence as they are more susceptible to social determinants of health.’’

Marcell Wilson understands how such complex factors contribute to gun violence. The tall and heavyset 42-year-old (195 cm, 99 kg) is the founder of the outreach organization, One By One, and the former leader of the Looney Toons gang, a Toronto offshoot of the Bloods gang. Of mixed race, Wilson grew up in the community housing complex of Swansea Mews in southwest Toronto near Parkdale. 

“Wilson believes that too many programs are futile if they don’t meet the needs of communities and are operated by people with no personal experience with marginalization.”

Wilson first experienced gun violence at a young age. While he was play-wrestling with friends, a short Jamaican man in his early twenties, only a few centimetres taller than Wilson, challenged the nine-year-old to wrestle him. When Wilson grabbed the man by the waist, he felt something hard and metallic and stopped immediately. The man laughed, pulled out a handgun and shot several clapping rounds above the kids’ heads. Wilson didn’t play outside for a month. 

Growing up in poverty and in a troubled single-parent household, Wilson ran away from home, became homeless at 13, found himself in parts of downtown where he met other lost, abandoned or abused kids. ‘‘There were a lot of Neo-Nazi skinhead groups in this era in the early nineties, like the Heritage Front, who’d walked in big groups of 50 in the city and beat up minorities,’’ Wilson says. ‘‘Us kids were terrified and made our own protection groups. And that’s how the ball started rolling.’’ 

As an activist with direct experience of violence, Wilson says that when addressing gun violence in marginalized neighbourhoods such as Lawrence Heights, it’s imperative to understand the unique circumstances of communities and their inhabitants. Wilson believes that too many programs are futile if they don’t meet the needs of communities and are operated by people with no personal experience with marginalization. ‘‘Contact is one of the hugest things,’’ he says. ‘‘The city pays all these people for community engagement, who make 90 grand a year with benefits, but have never talked to a community member their whole goddamn life. Even getting into a position where you can have a conversation is just half of the battle.’’

Jahtara Hutchinson-Bobb, a case worker at the Jane and Finch Community and Family Centre, shares the same sentiment. ‘‘You can have a hundred programs, but if they’re not meeting the needs that people want, they’re useless,’’ she says. ‘‘It becomes tricky when you don’t represent the people you’re trying to offer service to because they’re less inclined to accept.’’ 

It’s no small wonder, therefore, that people wouldn’t be thrilled at Mayor John Tory’s proposed $6-million budget for anti-violence. In response to such initiatives that promise big bucks but little effectiveness, Louis March, founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement says, ‘‘You can’t design programs by bureaucrats and politicians. The chance of success is like buying a lottery ticket. We don’t trust the academics or politicians to come up with the right answers if they do not engage the community. The first word in community safety is community, not police or politicians.’’ Dejazmatch James agrees.


James, a black male of Jamaican descent, has a lean, athletic frame and short, kinky hair. Articulate, outspoken and amiable, he wears his beaming white smile as if he never grew up in the rough Lawrence Heights neighbourhood. He understands the importance of good programs in marginalized communities because basketball, while he was growing up, helped him avoid the dangers of the streets. It opened the door to him attending George Brown College on a basketball scholarship, which further led James to Algoma University, where he graduated cum laude. 

James says that basketball helped him develop skills in leadership and teamwork, taught him hard work and tempered his occasional unruly attitude. ‘Silvia Skoutarou, a case worker at the Jane and Finch Community and Family Centre, concurs. “How many times have I heard people say, ‘Sports saved my life,’” she says. “These things build confidence. You see your skillset. You see yourself contributing to a community. You’re literally a part of a team.’’ 

James’ positive experiences with sports and post-secondary education, as well as having been exposed to gun violence, have helped him understand the inner workings and sentiments of his community. These factors have galvanized him into becoming an ambassador of change in Lawrence Heights, where the second youngest of working-class Jamaican-born parents has lived since his birth in 1993.

James’ father worked in a store that sold West Indian food products and he undertook intermittent factory jobs to make ends meet, while James’ mother remained home to take care of him and his six siblings. For the James family, it was either having a home of their own in a neighborhood fraught with danger or languishing on the streets. ‘‘It’s kind of like, pick your poison and this is the poison we pick, the slow dying poison,’’ says James. 

On top of contending with financial struggles, several people in James’ community, including Malcolm and others James knew personally, have either been shot at, incapacitated or killed in shootings. James lost three close friends, 18-year-old Abdikarim Abdikarim in 2008—‘‘Name so nice, mama named him twice,’’ says James, 24-year-old Marvin Engelbrecht in 2012 and 22-year-old Said Ali in 2017. 

James also recalls walking to his factory job in 2012 during his last year of high school and stopping to chat with a 38-year-old neighbour, Paul Fitzgerald Benn.

‘‘Where you headed?’’ asked Benn.

‘‘To work. I’m saving up for a basketball tour in Europe this summer,’’ James said.

‘‘Keep it up,’’ Benn said. ‘‘I’m happy to see that the path you’re on is different from the conventional Lawrence Heights life.’’ That was the last time James spoke to Benn. He was shot dead the following day.

Even when James was studying Community Economic and Social Development at Algoma University, in Sault Ste. Marie, the impact of gun violence remained with him. James’ instincts once kicked in when he was sitting on a bench in a courtyard with a white friend. Upon seeing a black kid running, James immediately shot upwards, fixing to run away. Then he realized, ‘‘Wait, I’m in Sault Ste. Marie.’’ 

‘‘What was that?’’ James’ white friend asked.

‘‘Honestly, if I was in Toronto, whoosh! I would’ve ran.’’

In 2020, his final year at Algoma University, James wrote as his thesis: The Qualitative Impacts of Gun Violence in Lawrence Heights. This capstone research paper focused on, and included, the testimonies of residents from Lawrence Heights and the effects of gun violence on their life. James would be up at 4 a.m. writing in the computer lab, rivulets of tears hitting the keyboard as he remembered those murdered in his neighbourhood. 

‘‘People who’ve passed away before, their energy lives on with me forever,’’ he says. ‘‘Whenever I do certain things, I think of them. Even my thesis on the impacts of gun violence, I did it because of the life that I lived and the people I’ve come across and lost.’’

James’ paper, which received an A, showed him that he had been mum for too long. After graduating in 2020, James became a member of the Lawrence Heights Changemakers, a grassroots organization comprised of Lawrence Heights residents with diverse skillsets, and parents who had lost a child to gun violence. 

On September 22, 2020, James coordinated a safety walk where he, Marcell Wilson, Louis March, Councillor Mike Colle and Lawrence Heights residents marched through Lawrence Heights to address gun violence, the lack of youth programming and the need for improved safety measures, like better speed bumps, lighting and cameras. Wearing a gray mask, James led the procession and chanted into a megaphone: ‘‘Humanize the hood.’’ 

Yusuf Ali, a high school friend of James, says, ‘‘There’s a stigma in our neighbourhood that we’ll only either be rappers, ballers or gangbangers, but Dejazmatch exceeded all of those stigmas. We needed someone that grew up in our community and understands our community to talk about our community.’’ 

Two weeks later, on October 8, 2020, at 7:30 a.m., James awoke to three missed calls from a coworker at a summer youth program called 37 Kids. Anxious, he texted her, ‘‘Hey, sorry I missed your call.’’ No sooner had the text been sent, the coworker called him.

‘‘They got Shane. They killed him,’’ she said.

‘‘You mean Shane right across the street from me?’’

‘‘Yes, they killed him last night.’’ 

Hours before, he had heard news of a shooting in Lawrence Heights, but he didn’t imagine the victim was 33-year-old Shane Stanford, a close friend and brotherly figure to James who worked as a personal trainer, camp counselor and aquatics specialist at a downtown YMCA. 

After coming home from the YMCA, Stanford was shot dead on the night of October 7 in his Acura sedan. Despite the arrests of two suspects and a search for a third, the motive for Stanford’s murder remains unclear; police believe he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

After weeks of mourning and talking to media outlets about Stanford, a fatigued James cancelled another safety walk that was to happen on November 6. After conferring with Councillor Colle about honouring Stanford, James created a petition on change.org to name a future park in Lawrence Heights after his friend. It garnered over 2,000 signatures.

‘‘We don’t know why these things senseless acts of violence [happen], but all I can say is that I’m taking the strength from [Shane’s passing] and I’m going use it to become the best person I can be,’’ says James. ‘‘We got to keep looking at the positivity and realize if we’re still here, we’re here for a reason, and that’s what keeps us going, what keeps us hopeful and resilient and praying that one day things will change around here.’’

Ryan Fernando, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at fernandoman@live.ca

Escape from Iran

The Islamic Republic of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini denied all human rights to a young woman and to her Baha’i community. She was threatened with imprisonment and execution. Today, she is an outspoken cheerleader for her adopted country.

By Marlo Fieldstone | Featured image courtesy of Kristen| Updated April 21, 2020

Fariba (all names changed to protect family members still in Iran) is a charming, elegant 58-year-old Iranian Baha’i woman with an inviting girlish giggle. She is confidently sitting in her spacious and opulent dining room in an exclusive Toronto neighbourhood. Her makeup and hair are subtly arranged, her jewelry understated. It’s her eyes that sparkle with delight and verve.

She is talking about her terrifying escape 36 years ago from persecution and possible death in Iran. Fariba and her Baha’i community were pariahs in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic and were threatened with unlawful imprisonment because of their Baha’i faith. That horrific period in her life was as far away from her peaceful and safe life in Toronto as the alien and ghostly mountains of the moon.  

 In April 1984, Fariba illegally fled without a passport from Iran to neighbouring Pakistan. Three outlawed smugglers, who towered above her tiny 5 ft. frame, helped her escape Iran for US$2,500.    

She was a skinny, sheltered and frightened 21-year-old who left Tehran alone on a dangerous route at night in a speeding Toyota truck. Her younger brother had left Tehran earlier, and the rest of her family were smuggled out of Iran several months later. The beat-up vehicle sped through the vast empty Lut Desert in the southeastern part of Iran. The desert was one of the hottest and driest places on Earth with no water, no vegetation, and few living things.  

On the second night, the smugglers and Fariba walked through the night with two other young Baha’i women refugees through the Makran Mountains, a landscape of treacherous mountain ridges, and a lethal pass to the Pakistani border. The pass was notorious for human trafficking, drug smuggling, and cross-border terrorism.  

Why had she fled?

Soon after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Fariba’s father had lost his well-paying job at Iran’s National Radio and Television station. And, as a Baha’i, Fariba was forbidden to attend university or allowed to work. Nor could her family receive life-saving medical treatments.  

Without her father’s job, her parents could not afford their grand spacious home.  “We were forced to move to a bleak, distant suburb of Tehran,” she says. “Everything disappeared for us – poof.”  

 After the revolution, some members of Fariba’s Baha’i community “disappeared.” During the first decade of the revolution, more than 200 Baha’is were killed or executed, hundreds more were tortured or imprisoned, and tens of thousands lost jobs, access to education, and other rights – all solely because of their religious belief. An official letter ordered by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader, said: “Our agenda is to kill and eliminate all Baha’is.”  

The terror of police arrests and killings of Baha’i people created a silent “underground” exodus, which included Fariba (and later the rest of her large family) to  Pakistan.  

 A day after she crossed the perilous border path into Pakistan, Fariba arrived at the United Nations refugee offices in Quetta, a large city near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. A Canadian immigration officer asked her in Farsi what she would do to be eligible to come to Canada.    

“Anything,” she said.

“You are good,” the official said. “You can go to Canada.”   

It took nine unsettling months for Fariba to finally receive a visa for Canada. 

On February 25, 1985, she arrived in Toronto on British Airways as an asylum-seeking refugee sponsored by the Canadian government. She surprisingly found the drive from the airport to be “an empty land.” In Toronto, she says, “no people were walking on the streets, and the trees were bare.”  

She had little education, few job skills, and did not speak English. She took ESL classes, and, later, an accounting course at Seneca College. Money was scarce. Fariba supplemented her meagre income by waitressing Saturdays and Sundays. 

Three years later, Fariba got married to a fellow Iranian refugee and became a Canadian citizen. She and her husband built a successful luxury kitchen-cabinet business with nearly 100 employees. “Our company was like a family,” she says. 

In 2008, however, she “thought the world was ending.”  

Her doctors found a big lump on her right breast and told her it was cancer. “I got very sick,” she says. A few months later, her surgeon discovered malignant tumours in both her left and right breast. She has had a full mastectomy and seven surgeries in the past eleven years.  

As she recalls those difficult times, Fariba stares at the gentle twilight coming through an imposing picture window in her home. “In Canada, I was able to get free medical care and operations that I couldn’t get back in Iran due to their huge costs,” she says. She feels that she was well looked after by all the doctors and hospital staff.  

Enayat, a leading Iranian-Canadian in the Baha’i community, has been a friend of Fariba and her husband for over 15 years. “Fariba is an inspirational person,” he says. “She has had many challenges in her life, such as her illness; yet she shows strength, gratitude, and kindness to others rather than being miserable.” 

Fariba is well now and is monitored annually with an MRI scan and a medical check-up. “Life could have been much worse,” she says. “I have (Baha’i) friends whose lives are in danger but can’t leave Iran.”  

She has a radiant smile and speaks with the glee of a young schoolgirl: “It is the freedom in Toronto of being able to step out of my house, and not having to cover up my body, my hair, and not having to be fearful of who I meet.” She says that in Iran, “The Islamic Revolutionary Guard could stop me, question me, stick their nose in everybody’s business, and throw me in jail.”   

The grim memory of the guards is quickly gone. She recalls that in the early 1990s, she was returning with her husband from her first vacation, a week in Mexico. She becomes joyfully animated when she says that “we were flying over Toronto, and I thought, this is home. I am so glad that I am finally home.” 

Marlo Fieldstone, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at marlo.field@gmail.com

A Hero Among Us

Retired psychotherapist Louisa Lai continues to help those in need.

By Julia Vaiano | Featured image courtesy of Orna Watchman via Pixabay | Updated April 21, 2020

 Her buzzing iPhone stirs 68-year-old Louisa Lai, a retired Toronto psychotherapist, from her peaceful slumber. She rolls over and retrieves her burgundy-rimmed glasses. She puts them on and sees that it’s 11 p.m.

She’s greeted by a flood of incoming texts from a patient, Emma (not her real name; she asked not to be identified for privacy reasons), saying she can’t sleep because of how anxious she feels. She asks if Lai would be willing to speak with her. Without hesitation, Lai answers Emma’s late-night call because her principle is that whenever someone approaches her for assistance, no matter what time, she will never refuse them.

Although no longer officially practicing at the time, Lai took Emma on as a patient in 2012 and has continued to support her ever since. Since then, Emma has maintained a close relationship with Lai and refers to her as being more than a counsellor but a true friend and “unconditional support.” 

“Louisa is an angel sent from heaven,” says Emma, “and with her, I learned to see things from a psychological, spiritual and emotional point of view with great compassion, love, wisdom and professionalism.”

Lai is not only a guiding light in Emma’s life but in that of many others. Since her early retirement in 2009, she has decided to see patients, without charge, based on referrals from people in the Greater Toronto Area and direct referrals from Catholic priests. She provides free therapy to people of all ages who are dealing with mental illness and personal problems.

Lai’s decision to give free therapy is a remarkable act of kindness because not everyone across Canada, who is affected by mental illness can receive the help and proper treatment they require because of how expensive therapy sessions are. The average cost of a private therapy session in Canada ranges between $125 to $175.

According to a report published by Statistics Canada, “In 2018, roughly 5.3 million people in Canada mentioned they needed some help for their mental health.” However, 1.1. million people did not receive assistance. . One of the most reported reasons was the cost.

Lai recognizes such a dire need. This petite woman has pin-straight, raven-black hair that rests just below her jawline.  She always wears a smile despite growing up in a household filled with great sadness. Unshakeable grief loomed over her family for years because of the double suicide of her grandparents that resulted from the severe persecution they faced from the communist Chinese government before she was born.

 “Growing up with such a dark cloud hanging over my family made me perceptive to when other people around me were feeling upset or were grappling with something,” she says. “And because I was so observant, I felt like I developed a huge need to want to help people who were struggling.”

Even though Lai felt a natural calling to help people, in 1971, at age 18, she decided to enroll at the University of Kansas to major in biology. After experiencing a personal crisis, she says, “I realized at that moment in time that my true purpose in life was to help those around me.”

She switched to psychology in the spring of 1973. After she graduated, she studied clinical psychology at the University of Western Ontario where she was one of seven students admitted into this highly competitive program. After graduating in 1977, she returned to her home in Hong Kong and found employment as a clinical psychologist at the Hong Kong Christian Service.

Lai always had a desire to better the community. That led her to start a pilot project called Infant Stimulation and Parent Effectiveness Training Program in Hong Kong, which she  provides for free.

Lai spent three years overseeing the project, which identified developmental issues in children from ages zero to three. A mother and child, for example, would come in once a week, and a social worker and nurse would evaluate the child and decide if they were ready to move on to the next set of exercises that involved improving their gross motor, fine motor, language, cognition, and social skills.

The program celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2018 and is now used all across Hong Kong. Yet the media coverage and massive success of the program is not what ultimately pleases Lai.

“I’m beyond proud of the program because of how many children’s lives it continues to change,” Lai says. Her warm, chocolate brown eyes shine with passion. “When I witnessed how much this program helped the children, it brought me the greatest joy because I helped make a positive and profound difference.”

In 1995, Lai started a private practice called Ivy Health Services in Scarborough. The practice was dedicated to helping patients with post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from serious car accidents. Many times, Lai would see patients beyond the allotted hour session, even up to two to three hours, yet only charged them for one.

“Seeing a patient for an hour wasn’t working because as soon as a patient and I were onto something, the hour would end. I could tell that it was incredibly frustrating for the patient, and I couldn’t turn someone away who needed my help,” she says. 

 The year 2020 marks the 11th year of Lai’s retirement, yet she continues to devote much of her time to helping people. She typically makes sure to check in in on all her patients by exchanging daily text messages, and that has not changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lai is still speaking to her patients and makes herself available for daily phone calls. “I’m happy to help and support all my patients, especially during these scary and uncertain times,” she says.

Real-life heroes don’t fly in the sky with a billowing red cape trailing behind them;   instead, they can be seen sitting right in front of us. Emma couldn’t agree more when she says, “I consider Louisa to be a real-life hero, and I really can’t thank her enough.”

Julia Vaiano, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at aianojulia@gmail.com

Under the Roof of Africa

How a Whitby woman is helping a community 12,000 km away.

By Charlotte MacDowell | Featured image courtesy of Pixabay | Updated April 21, 2020

Louise Berube’s gentle nature is contrasted by her platinum blonde hair, tinted pink lips and eyes boxed by thick black glasses. She seems to always be smiling and have a black coffee in hand.

Berube grew up in 1960s Oshawa, a town driven by the working class and General Motors. Like many of her peers, her first job was delivering newspapers on her bike. Her main stop was the local retirement home, Hillside Manor, now called Hillside Estates. She always went the extra mile, often stopping to chat with the residents or keep them company while they ate their breakfast.

About 60 years old, she now lives in Whitby and drives her cream-coloured Mini Cooper five days a week to Toronto for work at Nabs charity. At Nabs they are dedicated to the well-being of those working in the marketing, media and communications industry in Canada, as many people in the communications field have a poor work-life balance and suffer from stress. Nabs offers them tools to cope with mental health issues as well as financial support, should anybody suffer trauma or injury.

Nabs is a completely self-funded charity, so it uses creative ways to raise money. In 2015 a team of 18, including Berube, traveled to Tanzania to fundraise for Nabs. Their goal was to climb the highest peak in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, often referred to as the Roof of Africa. All 18 employees summited. It was such a success that the following year Berube and a team of 10 ventured to Mount Kilimanjaro again with the same goal and, once again, they summited.

During the climbs, Berube got to know her guide, Elias. Elias was struggling to support his wife Costansia and their three children. With Berube’s help, Elias was able to become a farmer. She then realized that vanilla was going to be grown in the Kilimanjaro region for the first time. This was a major opportunity because vanilla is more valuable than gold as it is so hard to come by. Berube helped Elias make connections and now he is on track to be one of the top 10 vanilla farmers in the area. Elias has worked tirelessly, hand-building greenhouses and tending to his vanilla plants. In a few months, the first 100 plants will bloom and be ready to sell.

On a detour in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, Berube met Jennifer, a young woman selling handmade jewellery, bags and shoes. After talking with Jenifer, she was motivated to help with her business. She took Jennifer’s business card and contacted her when she returned to Canada. Jennifer sent Berube crates filled with product. Impressed by the amount Jennifer had sent her, Berube looked through her contacts and began selling. She sold to friends, family and associates; eventually the stock was gone. Berube was able to send $30,000 back to Jennifer to buy land for a school for orphans.

Now, Berube is helping to refurbish Kyomu Primary School in the town of Moshi, in the region of Kilimanjaro. The school’s many needs are things Canadians take for granted. Desks are falling apart, and walls are barren and have chipped paint. The teaching supplies are limited to a beaten-up chalk board and not much is given to make learning a fun and interactive experience.

For lunch, students are served beans cooked in a large pot. There are not enough dishware for each child, so they share. This is a major aspect of the school Berube hopes to change. She wants to collect enough dishes for everyone and, at the same time, add more protein to the lunches. According to Berube, to feed a single student lunch for a month would cost $8.96 Canadian.

Loraine Brown, Berube’s friend of 10 years, has joined her on her journey as they both share a love of Africa and the people who live there. “Louise follows projects through.” Brown says, “Visitors come and see the dire straits they are in and say they will help. Then when they get back to their western culture lives, they forget. Louise commits to a project and sticks with it. She is totally committed to making a better world for this community and the children in Africa.”

Berube hopes to have the school completed in the next three years. Her next steps are reaching out to larger corporations who could help. She is offering to name each classroom after the companies who help with restoration. She has also received support from local dentists who have donated toothbrushes and toothpaste for students and teachers of the school.

Last September, Berube and Brown went to Moshi to visit the school, bringing gifts for the students. As they trekked the dirt path to the school Berube was determined to change, they were met by a solemn young boy. He was a student and escorted the two women the rest of the way to the run-down school. Upon their arrival, 300 children applauded them. Children sang them songs and each student proudly wore a Timmies jersey and waved a mini Canadian flag. The children played with the soccer and basketballs they had brought them. For these students, school is slowly but surely becoming a place of fun and enrichment.

Berube and Brown hope to return to Moshi in the fall with supplies to refurbish the school. Sadly, COVID-19 might delay their annual trip. Regardless of the obstacles that Berube faces, she is determined to enrich the lives of the students at Kyomu Primary School.

Charlotte MacDowell, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at charlotterosemac@gmail.com.

Reading the Tarot

What was supposed to be a fun evening involving tarot cards surprisingly leads to some interesting insights.

By Shannon Attard | Featured image courtesy of Alina Vilchenko via Pexels | Updated April 20, 2020

Last March, 22-year-old Adynn Montgomery skips to the mahogany table with a bottle of Girls’ Night Out Strawberry Sangria in her right hand and a worn-down pack of tarot cards in her left. It’s the 22nd birthday of our best friend Marena Phillips and I’m staying for the weekend at the place she and Adynn share in Peterboroug. As we sit at a mahogany table, Adynn says: “You know what we should do? I should give you guys a tarot reading to hone my skills.” Marena and I roll our eyes and smirk to each other while Adynn pours the pink fizzy substance into three red Solo cups. Adynn has always been intrigued with tarot cards and has played around with many different divination practices. Little did I know, this tarot reading would change my perspective on how I view life.

Adynn removes the tarot cards from their paper casing. They are slightly larger than normal playing cards.

Adynn, who has done this many times before, introduces Marena and I to this divination tool to kill some time before we go out for a night of pointless intoxicated fun. Surprisingly, along the way I learn a few things about these tempting pieces of thick paper, despite my Catholic family’s opposition to tarot cards.

Sitting at the table in Peterborough, I experience both excitement and an eerie forbidden desire. I was raised in a Catholic household and went to church at least once a month until high school. My dad made his opposition to tarot cards clear after I had told him, one time, that Adynn dabbles with them.

“Tarot cards aren’t a game. It’s spirits that are telling you which cards to choose so you’re basically summoning spirits,” my dad said, “and you don’t know if those spirits you’re summoning are evil or not.” This made me want to receive a tarot card reading even more. We can call it a forbidden desire.

In Peterborough, I take a sip of my sangria and we all laugh as I tell them what my dad had said. Our boots huddle by the front door, soaked in spring’s mud and rain. Adynn shuffles the cards and spans them out in front of me like a tantalizing outstretched fan. “Pick three cards that you feel are calling to you,” she says. “The first one you pick will represent your past, the second is your present, and the third one will be for your future.” I run my fingers along the fanned-out cards and pull out three. Adynn pushes the rest of the cards away from us.

Marena giggles. “This should be funny Adynn, because you don’t know anything about Shannon’s past. This is like the ultimate test on your reading skills.”

Adynn flips over the card I picked for my past. It says “DEATH” across the bottom. A skeleton in silver armor sits on a white horse while a bony arm holds a black flag with a white flower splattered on its center. The Death card usually signifies new beginnings, not an actual death. This card focuses on the transformation a traumatic experience can bring.

“Not necessarily a death, but similar to a death,” Adynn assures us, after seeing our furrowed brows at the word DEATH. “You suffered a great loss during your childhood that affected you deeply and experiences from that have mended you into the person you are and will become.” I look down at the table as she says this. I thought of my broken family unit. My parents got divorced when I was 12. It changed how I view people and handle relationships.

“You had one special person in your life who was always constant and there for you,” Adynn says. My eyes dart towards Marena’s ocean blue eyes. She and I were inseparable since meeting in the first grade.

“Tarot cards aren’t a game. It’s spirits that are telling you which cards to choose so you’re basically summoning spirits.”

Flashback to elementary school where days were filled with officials in courtrooms and strangers trying to tell me to pour my feelings out to them, leaving me hollow and quietly holding everything in. I would always be dropped off by either my dad or my mom, depending on which weekend it was, at Marena’s comforting home where we would play flashlight tag in her yard at night with her younger sister Melanie. This helped whisk my family drama away in the wind behind me.

At the table, Marena nods her head. “Actually, that was pretty weird and accurate about your parent’s divorce,” she says.

 “See I told you guys I’m psychic!” Adynn pouts her glossy lips making me and Marena tipsily throw our heads back as we laugh. We brush off her insight because Adynn is the type of friend who knows what is going on in your life without you having to tell her.

For example, in September 2018, Adynn and I were sitting on my mom’s burgundy couch catching up on each other’s lives as we had not seen each other for three months because of our busy schedules with school. Adynn fluffed her hands through her espresso-colored bangs and said, “What’s your mother’s real name?” 

I laughed out loud. My mother had recently had to legally change her name on her identification cards because they had not matched. “That’s very weird,” I said. “It’s Sofia, but she just went to legally change it to Sophie.” 

In Peterborough, Adynn smiles to herself before she takes a celebratory sip from her Solo cup. She used to tell me before: “One of the reasons I like giving tarot card readings is because I like seeing people’s reaction when I give them a reading. Whether it’s spot-on or completely off.”

Adynn’s mother and grandmother both went to psychics, and they performed tealeaf and palm readings during family gatherings. At one family dinner, her grandmother lifted Adynn’s teacup from the table when everybody finished eating. Gently twirling the ceramic mug, she squinted at the tealeaf remnants at the bottom. “A star is a sign of good luck,” she said.

Adynn smiles when she thinks back on this because she felt happy when her grandmother told her she would have good luck. Adynn started researching more about Wicca because of her family’s influence and stumbled upon the process called divination.

Divination is one of the primary practices used by shamans, seers, priests, sorcerers, wiccans, and witches. It refers to the practice of fortune telling or to gain insight into the unknown by supernatural forces.

Wicca is a modern pagan religion, developed in England during the first half of the 20th century. There are many different aspects to the religion’s core structure and it’s constantly evolving over time. It has a number of different lineages, known as traditions, each consisting of their own specific structure of religious beliefs, traditions, and practices. There are over 50 ways divination can be practiced, the earliest originating in the medieval period, including Norse runes, crystal balls, tealeaf readings, pendulums, numerology, and tarot cards. 

Back in Peterborough, Adynn flips over the second card I picked. The words “THE FOOL” are written on the bottom, under a man whose head is tilted back to gaze at the sky. A white dog does the same to his right. This card explains new beginnings, being inexperienced, and gives hope for what is to come.

“You are living a sheltered kind of life right now, but it will get more exciting. It’s not time yet, but soon, when you start to open up and let people past the walls you build up around yourself life will change,” Adynn says.

“That is also very true,” says Marena. She’s usually a skeptic about these sorts of things. A chill runs down my spine at how weirdly accurate these observations are, and how closely connected they are to each other: both talking about new beginnings.

Sarah believes there are forces that can be derived from the universe and doing spells and divination processes are like manipulating these forces for selfish desires. 

Adynn flips the third card: the future. It is the Seven of Wands, depicting a man awkwardly lifting one of the seven wooden sticks that surround him on the ground. This card symbolizes challenges, resistance, and obstacles up ahead, continuous fight, and never giving up.

“You may be thinking how your desired career is hard to reach, but through hard work and sacrifice you can achieve it. It won’t happen overnight. It will take some time,” Adynn says. 

“Not your best,” Marena giggles. “That sounded very cookie-cutter. Everyone says that about the future.” Adynn rolls her eyes in response.

Marena combs her hands through her silky blonde hair. “Okay girls, let’s get the Smirnoff bottle,” she says. Adynn and I smile in agreeance. Adynn collects the cards while Marena and I saunter towards the fridge with our empty cups in hand.

Later that night, after having been on the town for a few hours, I sit in the car with Adynn and Marena on our way back to their place. Looking out as the trees blur pass the windshield, I realize how general Adynn’s statements were. Tired from the night’s events, I sleepily find myself reflecting on Adynn’s reading from earlier in the evening. The cards are supposed to read me, when in reality I ended up reading the tarot cards. I started thinking about how I would get chills when Adynn would say something that was accurate and spot on. After reflecting on the accurate statements and hearing them over and over in my head, I realized there is nothing creepy about it. In fact, Adynn’s words were simplistic in meaning but I inferred them to mean so much more.

Since I’ve gained more knowledge about divination tools, I see that people use variations of divination without even realizing it: flipping a coin to decide a course of action or having a lucky number, to name two.

The practice of divination, I’ve learned,  has existed in every historical period. In Mesopotamian times, astrology – a divination practice – was one of the first sophisticated forms of divination. The Greeks had oracles who told the future. In 1000 BC the Chinese also had an oracle, “I CHING,” consisting of yarrow sticks. 

An interesting aspect about tarot cards is they weren’t originally used as magical tools until the late 18th century. In northern Italy during the late 14th century, the cards were used in a game called tarocchi. A man named Antoine Court de Gebelin argued the symbols on the tarot cards contained the hidden wisdom of a god called Thoth. According to author-illustrator Robert Michael Place’s 2009 book, The Vampire Tarot, in 1785 Jean-Baptiste, a French occultist, was the first professional in history to be known to use tarot cards as divination tools.

Sarah (not her real name; she didn’t want to be identified), a 48-year-old licensed consulting hypnotist in Toronto, has explored many of the different Wicca practices. This includes many versions of tarot cards. She stopped practicing Wicca because she started feeling emotionally drained after conducting tarot card readings. “Whether you work with nature [or] Egyptian gods, there’s still magic and manipulating energy to get a result,” she says. Sarah believes there are forces that can be derived from the universe and doing spells and divination processes are like manipulating these forces for selfish desires. 

Bruce Lipton, an American development biologist, was born in New York in 1944. Lipton is best known for supporting the theory that gene influence can be altered, via epigenetics, by environmental factors. Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by the gene’s expression rather than a change in the genetic code. In his research, he explains how the mind is powerful and how belief is power. Lipton, a renowned cell biologist, in his book The Biology of Belief, published in 2005, discovers: “The biochemical effects of the brain’s functioning show that all the cells of your body are affected by your thoughts.”

The different divination tools, in actuality, are very arbitrary. For example, the reading part is the most important aspect in tarot cards. The person who is getting the tarot card reading will interpret the cards, without the help of spiritual guidance. The same card will have different meanings to each individual.

As I reflect back on the evening with the cards, I realize I disagree with Sarah and with my dad. I don’t think there were any spirits guiding my cards during Adynn’s reading. If anything, I was the one guiding my cards.

Who knew a girl’s night would turn into philosophical thoughts on life and religion that made me change my thoughts on the Catholic view that tarot cards are so evil and forbidden? I guess I read the cards correctly in one sense: new beginnings indeed.

Shannon Attard, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at shannonattard7@gmail.com

Tough Love, Jamaican Style

Many Jamaican parents believe that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. Are they right?

By Bria Barrows | Featured image courtesy of David Peterson via Pixabay | Updated April 20, 2020

My dad, Charles Barrows, leans his back against the ledge of our kitchen sink in Toronto as he recalls growing up in Jamaica as a young boy. At age 56, he’s tall and sturdy and has a youthful grin. His thick, black hair is speckled with gray. The creases of his smile go upwards as he laughs and the sound of his voice echoes throughout the room. He’s been in Canada exactly 46 years, but his Jamaican patois accent is still thick as he speaks about his childhood in the lush Caribbean nation. 

“I’m about six years old and I come home after walking about ten kilometers from Font Hill Primary School [in Saint Thomas Parish]. I’m panting and sweating. My heart beats fast from running. I haven’t even got into the house when my mom comes out and tells me to get firewood,” he says.

“I am hot and tired and I don’t want to get firewood after travelling all that way from school. So, I mumble something under my breath loud enough for my mom to hear. She realizes I’m backtalking her instead of doing as I’m told.

“My mom begins to chase me with a piece of stick to beat me. In Jamaica, you do as you’re told and backtalking my mother is not acceptable. I run away and I think I’ve gotten away until a young man who lives in the district sees that my mom is chasing me. He hops off his donkey and grabs me, [which allows] my mom to beat me repeatedly.”

I’m stunned that at only six years old my dad was asked to do things like get firewood and water. 

“If your parents send you to get water five miles away, you have to get it,” he says. “Sometimes our parents even sent us to get water for the house at night when it’s pitch black.  If it isn’t done we get beaten.”

When it comes to discipline in Jamaica, corporal punishment has been practiced in households for a very long time. An article published in 2017 by the Western Mirror, a local Jamaican newspaper, noted that: “Corporal punishment, as practiced in Jamaica, has been with us from time immemorial. Older folks, in retrospect, still believe that the spankings they received back in the day have made them the  law-abiding citizens that they are now.”

Many Jamaican children, whether they live on the island or in other countries such as Canada, experience physical punishment for misbehaviour. While some, who are now adults, believe this focus on discipline and structure is beneficial, others say there are negative consequences to being raised this way.

I ask my dad if he thinks that doing chores in the house and getting beatings at a young age old benefited him at all.

 “It instills fear in you,” he says. “Nowadays, with kids, there’s no consequence for anything  they do. The fear teaches kids not to do wrong and to be on the straight and narrow. It’s beneficial because it makes you respect your parents. If you don’t beat the kids they will run you out of your house. You need tough love because the world is not soft.

Looking back as an adult now, I’m who I am because of how I was raised. I wasn’t allowed to sleep in. My dad would come in the room to wake me and if I didn’t wake up I would get beaten. My upbringing gave me my work ethic.” 

“Sometimes our parents even sent us to get water for the house at night when it’s pitch black.  If it isn’t done we get beaten.”

I next talk to Paula Taylor, a neighborhood friend, in early December 2019. She’s big in stature and her face is round. She wears a colourful hair wrap, the bright yellows and oranges a contrast to her plain, black winter jacket.  For Taylor, 42, structure was a big part of her childhood.

“Coming from a Jamaican background, especially as a female, I was required to take care of the home. Being a young child, I thought, ‘This is so hard, I’m not having fun like my friends.’ But going into the workforce today, I appreciate the structure that my mom taught me,” she says.

Taylor agrees that having to do chores and being forced to attend church regularly are the types of responsibilities today’s young generation need.

“My upbringing taught me to be realistic and hold onto things that are valuable and eliminate the things that aren’t,” she says. “If we, as parents, don’t teach our children a certain foundation such as chores, we should not be surprised that as they get older, they may struggle to get certain things and retain information at work, etc.,” she says.

As I explore this topic, I speak with 29-year-old Crystal Hackett, who was born in Toronto and still lives there. She has a small frame, belied by her strong, assertive voice. Her skin is a dark, chocolate complexion and her long black hair drapes over her shoulders.  Her warm smile brightens her face.

 Crystal recalls her mom, Karen Hackett, telling her about being punished as a child in Jamaica.

“My mom would get beat in public,” Karen told her. One consequence, Crystal believes, is that when Karen became a parent, she was not as nurturing towards Crystal as Crystal would have liked.  Although she used physical punishment on Crystal, she didn’t apply it in public. “I felt my parents were crazy for beating me in public,” Karen says today. “It’s negative because it’s something I’ll never forget. But that was the norm back then.”

Crystal doesn’t want to continue the cycle of punishments, and the possible alienation it could cause now that she’s a parent. “In raising my daughter, I want to up the communication,” she says. “I don’t want my daughter to feel like she can’t talk to me about certain things. In my childhood, the nurturing aspect was restrained.”

I also talk to Maxine (she didn’t want to give her real name), a physically strong 56-year-old despite having a small frame. Her brown skin glows and her high cheekbones stand out on her face. The curls from her black, twisted hair fall to her shoulders. Living in Saint Thomas, Jamaica, she’s witnessed children getting hit for even the littlest things.

“I saw people beat their kids with what we call the ‘coconut broom,’” she says. “They would take it off the tree and hit them until their skin had welts. I’ve seen kids publicly beaten and shamed. Kids would get cursed at and were beaten until their lips bust open.”

“Being a young child, I thought, ‘This is so hard, I’m not having fun like my friends.’ But going into the workforce today, I appreciate the structure that my mom taught me.”

She suggests that at the heart of the punishment issue is the belief, held by some adults, that children aren’t seen as people.

“Some kids back home are treated like nothing because the parents think they are their property and they can do what they like,” she says. “I’ve heard parents say, ‘I brought you into this world and I can take you out!’ The parents think that beating their kids will put them on the straight and narrow, but this isn’t necessarily true. The beatings for some kids have the opposite effect, which causes them to resent their parents for what they did. It is a form of trauma I believe.”

Maxine sees both good and bad resulting from her tough upbringing, noting that her mother provided for the house but did not express love or affection. “I’m not really sure my mom knew how to be affectionate, but I did feel like I was treated like an outsider. She spent most of her time with her church family as opposed to her blood family. There was no love, affection, bonding, I would have liked that. I always felt like my mom had a hands-off approach and kept me at arm’s length. She didn’t want me to get too close to her.”

When Maxine was still a youngster, her mother abandoned her, which caused her to withdraw from others. “When I was young, I had a hard time expressing my feelings to people,” she says. “I never asked people for favours because I thought I was capable of taking care of myself. However, my upbringing did give me structure, work ethics and discipline. It also kept me realistic and grounded.

The times might be changing in Jamaica, however. In 2018, Education, Youth and Information Minister, Senator Ruel Reid, called for it to be banned. “Corporal punishment is so entrenched in our culture and interwoven in our society that it has been accepted as a norm for many families and at a point in time in our schools. We have been able to repel that in large measure,” the Jamaica Information Service reported him saying. “Laws are being strengthened to protect children from corporal punishment and other acts of violence.”

“Some kids back home are treated like nothing because the parents think they are their property and they can do what they like.”

Two years later, corporal punishment is no longer permitted in Jamaican schools. According to the Global Initiative to End Corporal Punishment, “Corporal punishment is prohibited in early childhood institutions [daycares and daycares for older children]. This law also goes for public and private schools.”

After all these conversations, it seems to me that a strict upbringing can have benefits. As a millennial, I definitely think the rules and responsibilities and structure that some Jamaican parents instill in their children is needed. It allows kids to progress when they get older because they carry these values into their jobs. This type of focus is lacking for some kids and a certain level of structure is needed to be an active contributor to society. Some children also aren’t taught the importance of respect for their elders or the value of working hard.

In an age where it’s so easy to get distracted by technology and social media, knowing how to be focused on your goals and dreams and have a direction for your life is needed. I know I would have been so distracted growing up if my parents hadn’t taught me the importance of having an education. They raised me this way because in Jamaica they were taught discipline.

I also think being well-mannered, an attribute many Jamaican parents teach their kids, is noticed by people when they meet you for the first time; this, to me, is a positive.

On the other hand, beating a child until they have welts, with objects such as belts and tree sticks, can have a lasting psychological effect. I think some Jamaican parents today should understand that while beatings might have been viewed as helpful when they were young, talking to your kids and having open conversations are also effective, perhaps more so.

Although I can see the need to instill discipline, I have no intention of punishing my children, when I have them, in any harsh ways. To me, the negative effects far outweigh the benefits.

Bria Barrows, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at briasbarrows@gmail.com

Women Reinventing Ink

AN ALL-FEMALE TORONTO TATTOO SHOP IS HELPING TO COUNTERBALANCE AN INDUSTRY THAT HAS TRADITIONALLY BEEN MALE DOMINATED.

By Alexa Gregoris | Featured image courtesy of Adrian Boustead via Pexels | Updated April 20, 2020

Behind the Tinkerbell-green door of the HeartStrong tattoo shop, a small team of female artists are making a name for themselves in Toronto. The owner, Tiff Lee, created this safe space for her fellow artists and clients in the third-floor tattooing sanctuary located above the clamour of Bloor Street West.

White walls contrast the warmth of the greens and pinks of the tropical wallpaper that greet clients at the reception area. The cozy studio is embellished with a variety of art, unique to each artist’s tattooing style. One station exhibits everything pink, floral and bunny-related, framed in gold. Lee’s station is covered in skeleton portraits, a cross-stitched cartoon of death, and the art her wife does not want in their brightly decorated home. HeartStrong fuses diverse aesthetics and artists to create a collaboration of female-artistry in a seemingly unlikely profession.

HeartStrong challenges the expectations of what, to many, can be an intimidating environment, especially for women. I experienced this in early August 2017 when I walked into the Ink & Water Tattoo studio in Toronto’s west end. The modern shop was filled with bright lights that reflected off white walls, and there were plants scattered throughout room.

At first, I felt welcomed by the space; it helped to soothe my nerves, which had been building up at the anticipation of getting my first tattoo. The consultation I had with the co-owner, Michael Percherle, had gone quite well five months earlier. When I met him, he seemed kind and excited to create my tattoo. The day of my appointment, however, he was not so friendly; rather, I felt as if he saw the exercise as nothing more than a paycheque. He was rude, impatient, and patronizing about my pain.

The buzzing of the tattoo machine rang in my ears as he worked on my tattoo. I was getting an all-black pair of bloomed roses, with their stems intertwined. Although not in colour, it involved many fine details and covered the length of my rib cage on my right side. 

I experienced a bit of pain, but I was more hurt by the fact that he was ruining this long-awaited experience. Years later, I am still wary of having another male artist tattoo me, in fear of facing another bully.

The tattoo industry is still male-dominated, due to studios continuing to operate under the traditional ideals and hyper-masculine stereotypes of tattoo artists. However, with the example set by female artists and shop owners like Lee, space is being created for women to enter into a profession that has traditionally excluded them. 

“I can either get angry or laugh and move on and continue being glamourous.”

“I think I’ve always wanted to tattoo since I was very young,” says Lee, “I would [literally] draw on my peers as a child, so I think it was a pretty natural progression.” Lee initially started working towards a degree in advertising at Humber College, before she found her way back to the idea of tattooing professionally. She did quite well. “I figured out it was really corporate and somewhat soul sucking and figured I should try something that I actually really care about, rather than focusing on what my family and others would think.”

Lee has been tattooing for the last seven years, having started her career at age 21. She opened HeartStrong in October 2018, and in the short time since, Lee’s team has already found success. For example, HeartStrong won Toronto Star Readers’ Choice award for best tattoo studio in Toronto in early 2019.     

Lee chose HeartStrong as her studio’s name because she hoped it reflected her values without being too over-the-top or aggressive. She didn’t set out to become an all-female and all-queer shop. “It just so happens that the people that I get along with really well, and [who] needed a job at the time and were invested in this project, happen to be women, happen to be queer,” she says.

Lee feels that being a queer and female tattoo artist has made her experience in the industry easier in some ways. In the early years, she was the only female artist working among only male co-workers. She found that as a queer woman, the men were somewhat protective of her, due to the lack of any romantic potential. “A lot of the males that I’ve worked with were like, ‘You’re gay, you’re just one of the guys,’” she says, although she acknowledges this sense of ease is not true for all queer or all female artists in the industry.

For example, tattoo artist Lorena Lorenzo De Carvajal has been told to her face that women are ruining the industry. The 32-year-old, who was born in Cuba, is the president of Indigo Art Incorporated. She’s been working in Toronto for the last 12 years, creating pieces as colourful and bright as her own character. “Are you scared boo-boo?” she likes to say when confronted with misogyny. “I can either get angry or laugh and move on and continue being glamourous.” She presents herself as a confident woman. “A lot of the men can be feisty. If you’re a woman, you have to have a personality, be outgoing [and] strong, have a backbone, or you won’t survive. I kick ass!”

Despite the resistance from some male artist, females continue to change the way the tattoo industry operates and looks at women. However, the climb to the top can still be difficult and, sometimes, dangerous.

“I’m trying to say this in the most diplomatic way,” says Lee. “It wasn’t good, a lot of the experiences I had.” As a young woman who looked younger than her age, she often encountered a patronizing attitude. She recalls some male artists saying things such as: “‘Aw, look at you. You wanna be a tattoo artist honey?’”  

It’s not only women who find themselves treated badly within the industry. Tattoo artist Adam Spivak, a close friend of Lee’s, shed light on his own experience in unprofessional shops during his apprenticeship. Spivak, 27, has been tattooing for three years and is currently working at Wolves Throne Tattoo in Etobicoke. Spivak has a background in fine art and traditional oil painting and earned a BA in graphic design and creative advertising from Humber College. He says his skill set and education were taken advantage of during his first apprenticeship at a small street shop in downtown Toronto. “After being hired I was quickly tasked with designing and drawing all of my mentor’s tattoos and meeting with all of his consultations, being led to believe this responsibility was a great achievement. My mentor was piling all of his work on me,” he says. “I was scared to leave, fearing that I wouldn’t be given a chance at any other shop because of the competition.”

Spivak was shocked by the lack of education his mentor provided to his many apprentices. “I felt unprepared to handle the tattoo equipment, especially when pressured to prematurely tattoo walk-in clients,” he says. At one point, Spivak’s own tattoo got infected, and rather than receiving advice from his mentor, he was pressured into ignoring it even after requesting to leave for the hospital. A doctor later confirmed that Spivak’s infection had elevated to a staph infection, and if he had stayed at work for a day longer he would have had blood poisoning.

“The final straw before parting ways with this shop came from witnessing my mentor’s judgments and racist comments being directed at clients,” says Spivak. “I realized I was the only one taking my apprenticeship seriously and was being held back in the toxic environment.”

He says he wouldn’t be a tattoo artist if “it wasn’t for the female artists around me. Female artists were the ones predominantly encouraging me to enter the industry and not feel discouraged for not fitting in with the traditional tattoo personas.”

Unsafe and unprofessional client experiences are evident in the industry, including verbal, physical and sexual misconduct. As a result, many female tattoo clients have a preference for female artists. Lorenzo De Carvajal says that many women have come to her for tattoos and a sense of comfort, due to poor past experiences with male tattoo artists. “[Women] have had to leave studios with a half-done piece. It’s not right!”

“The final straw before parting ways with this shop came from witnessing my mentor’s judgments and racist comments being directed at clients.”

Having undergone an unprofessional tattooing experience, I too intend to have any future tattoos done by a female artist, or a male artist, like Spivak, who works alongside women in a respectful environment. Percherle, who did my first and only tattoo left me with a reminder of my uncomfortable experience permanently on my skin. The two roses I got tattooed on my ribs as a symbol of my sister and myself are now something I try not to look at in the mirror as they remind me of how he treated me. His fellow male co-owner, Prairie Koo, truly solidified the shop’s lack of professionalism towards female clientele through his flirtatious advances over social media prior to my tattoo appointment. Due to their behaviour, I am looking into redoing and editing my tattoo at HeartStrong to reclaim the experience I had hoped for, in the absence of sexualizing or patronizing attitudes.

Interestingly, Taylor Schmid, a tattoo artist at Golden Iron Tattoo Studio in Toronto, says that most of her difficulties with sexism in the industry have come from her male clientele, not other artists. “Things like men who’ve sexualized my job or who walked in the shop and assumed I work the front desk,” Schmid says. “That shit pisses me off.”  

Schmid has been tattooing for three years, having started her apprenticeship at age 22, and now specializes in black-ink florals. She is unsure if the tattoo industry is still male dominated. Schmid thinks the industry has made great strides in making safer spaces for vulnerable clientele. She says her love of tattooing stems in part from how safe she feels in a tattoo shop. Schmid gives thanks to her two male mentors in the industry, who have never showed her anything other than support. “They looked at me as an artist first and I’ve appreciated that.”

But Thomarya Fergus, also known as Tee Fergus, is certain the tattoo industry in Toronto is still male dominated although she thinks it’s becoming a bit more open thanks to the push for diverse representation. She feels that a greater range of diversity is being represented as a new generation of artists and clientele are taking over the industry. At age 33, Fergus is a tattoo artist in a private studio in Kensington Market. One of her favourite tattoos of her own has the words boy and girl crossed out, with the word experience above them both. She feels it defines her.

Fergus, who is black and queer, says, “At the time, there wasn’t someone that looked like me in that position and I thought it would be cool to be that figure.” Tattooing wasn’t a path that Fergus chose, but rather a plan she believes the universe had for her. Fergus knew of a small group of black men in the tattoo industry, but there seemed to be a lack of tattoo artists who were black, female and queer like her. Being one of very few, she had to work hard at the beginning to gain clients and the respect she deserved as an artist.

“I always felt that if you didn’t fit in anywhere else you could walk into a tattoo shop and no one there would judge you. It’s a beautiful thing,” Schmid says. “I just want that feeling to be protected.  If you’re a judgemental asshole there is no place for you to do this work. I want everyone to feel happy and comfortable getting tattooed.”

“Things like men who’ve sexualized my job or who walked in the shop and assumed I work the front desk.”

Greater diverse representation is a major change Fergus thinks needs to be made in Toronto’s tattoo industry at large. With more representation, Fergus says, “more people will have access, people will hopefully want to learn, and those people who have always thought about it can see that they can do it and create those spaces.” However, Fergus says it is going to take time.

Lorenzo De Carvajal believes that the future of Toronto’s tattoo industry needs to be approached with “less ego, more work, more love for the artwork, and way less pride.” She thinks that, at times, especially during Toronto tattoo conventions, male artists can get very cocky. She plays the role of a “mama goose,” reminding others to be humble and collaborate, rather than try and live a rock-star lifestyle. Lorenzo De Carvajal is adamant that artists cannot be in the tattoo business for the money. She feels that tattoo artists need to have the passion and creativity to be the person who makes their clients’ dreams a reality.

Tiff Lee’s shop and career are dreams come true for her. She’s proud to have shaped her business in a style that treats customers the way she would want for herself.  Women may still be a minority in the tattoo industry but HeartStrong is one large step towards changing that imbalance, one tattoo at a time.

Alexa Gregoris, a Toronto freelance writer, can be contacted at alexa98@my.yorku.ca

The Weight

The pressure of making, and maintaining, a certain ideal weight leading up to competitions, has caused some weightlifters to develop eating disorders.

By Javheria Ibrahim | Featured image courtesy of Kristen Gomez | Updated April 20, 2020

Heavy beads of sweat trickle off her skin. The humid air of the outdoor gym blows over her 117-pound body as she tightly wraps a weightlifting belt around her waist.

In August 2016, five-foot-three-inch, 17-year-old Kristen Gomez tightly shuts her eyes as every muscle in her body tenses in preparation for the weight she is about to lift and for the completion that looms not far ahead. She hardens her grip on the barbell, and with a forceful breath, lifts 185 pounds in a powerful deadlift. She slams the barbell back down. The sound reverberates throughout the Miami gym as the plates on each side hit the padded floor. Her muscles tense again, for her set is not complete until she fails to lift the bar.

Two hours later, she walks out of the gym toward her Mediterranean-Revival-style Miami home. As Gomez ponders the nutritional makeup of her next meal, she envisions the enormous stack of pancakes she will eat after her show. But for now, it must remain a temptation to be avoided.

Gomez competed in seven bodybuilding shows between October 2016 and November 2017. Due to the intense and restrictive nature of preparing for a bodybuilding competition – or “prepping for a show,” as it’s referred to in the industry – many bodybuilders binge eat large amounts of food after their shows, sometimes for months on end.

Gomez was one of these bodybuilders.

Now 21-years-old, she began suffering from binge eating disorder and bulimia when she was 15. When she was an impressionable teenager, Gomez had started looking at models on Instagram. “I remember seeing them and thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I looked like that,’” she says. While this motivated Gomez to begin weightlifting, it also encouraged her disordered eating habits.

From the age of three to 14, Gomez participated in gymnastics, a physically intensive sport that allows most of its athletes to stay in shape while eating large amounts of junk food.

“When I did gymnastics, I didn’t need to worry about what I was eating because I was training so hard that I was really fit no matter what,” says Gomez. “But when I quit, I kept eating the way I was eating when I was doing gymnastics but doing half the activity. I ended up gaining 25 pounds within a year.”

Magda Banas, a 22-year-old bodybuilding competitor in the bikini division, had a similar experience.

Banas, who lives in Mississauga, took part in dance and gymnastics from age five. She continued to dance until she graduated from high school, but swapped gymnastics for Taekwondo – a popular martial art – at age 15.

Having given up dance and gymnastics, and then Taekwondo after high school, Banas found herself rapidly gaining weight. She, too, needed a new physical hobby.

She pursued an interest in the human body and earned a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology, which she began at McMaster University in the fall of 2016. Shortly after, she joined her university gym. Using the technical knowledge she was gaining from her classes, Banas began training as a bodybuilder.

“Taekwondo was much more fitness-based than dance and gymnastics were,” says Banas, “and it made me feel like a badass. I knew I wanted to do something more powerful, more fitness focused, so I started bodybuilding.”

Three years later, at age 21, Banas made her debut on a professional bodybuilding stage as a competitor in the bikini division at a local show in Barrie, Ontario in July 2019.

While Banas continues to work toward obtaining her “Pro Card” from the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness – a coveted achievement in the industry attained by few competitors – Gomez gave up bodybuilding competitively after her show in November 2017, where she was only one point away from achieving her card.

Only one year into weightlifting, Gomez was 18 when she first began competitive bodybuilding. She lost 30 pounds in two months and regained confidence in her new physique – yet she continued to struggle with her eating disorder.

“Competing for me was disordered eating in disguise,” says Gomez. “Everyone thought I was so healthy, but I was obsessed. My whole life revolved around my competitions. All that ran through my brain was, ‘when is my next meal.’ I was so food-obsessed and so obsessed with the way I looked that nothing else mattered.”

In the weeks leading up to a show, Gomez would be disciplined and diligent, not eating a single calorie more than her daily allotment. However, after every show, she would binge eat copious amounts of food. Following her final show in November 2017, Gomez began a cycle of binge eating and purging that lasted six months.

“Competing for me was disordered eating in disguise.”

This is not uncommon behavior among competitive bodybuilders. According to a study published in the European Journal of Sports Science in 2019, the top three reasons for participation in competitive bodybuilding are: “always interested in competing in physique sport (44.3%), to improve body image (37.4%), and to improve self-esteem (33.6%).”

This study identifies the latter two as prospective risks for developing disordered eating behaviours.

This suggests individuals, such as Gomez, are gravitating toward bodybuilding to ‘fix’ body image and self-esteem issues and achieve personal expectations of their ideal body weight and shape. Entering bodybuilding with this mindset puts these individuals at high-risk for developing eating disorders and body dysmorphia, as a lean and toned body must be obtained, and maintained, at all costs.

Marta Tsap – a 31-year-old three-time bodybuilding competitor from Toronto, who also competes in the bikini division – discovered bodybuilding in the fall of 2017 and began her competitive journey three months later.

Ten years above the average age of a first-time bodybuilding competitor, Tsap found that competing presented a unique set of challenges – as well as providing some wisdom.

“I find that a lot of people aren’t really prepared for the mental aspect that comes with competing,” she says. “How lean you are on stage isn’t sustainable, it isn’t realistic. But a lot of competitors come off stage and end up developing body dysmorphia because they put on a couple of pounds.”

Although Tsap did not experience this as drastically as most bodybuilders do, she has seen it happen in many of her bodybuilding friends.

According to Tsap, there are two post-show extremes:  chasing one’s ‘show-body’ by trying to stay at a very low body fat percentage year-round, or caving to the cravings that have been ignored for weeks.

Having gained 30 pounds after her first show, Tsap fits into the latter category. “Your body is just so overworked from training so hard and eating so little,” she says. “You just keep thinking, ‘When is my next meal? I want to eat already.’ It’s hard to come out of that and not binge eat.”

Body dysmorphia is another extremely common disorder among bodybuilders. A 2010 article published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience defines body dysmorphia as a psychiatric disorder in which those suffering from  it have severe misperceptions about their appearance. They believe they look overweight or underweight when, in reality, they look quite normal and healthy to others.

One example is Shemar Morrison, a 24-year-old bodybuilder from Mississauga.

Morrison was inspired to begin bodybuilding at age 16 when he saw a picture of soccer superstar Christiano Ronaldo modelling men’s underwear. He describes this moment as the seed that sprouted his passion for fitness.

“I wanted to look like him,” Morrison says. “I wanted to look more aesthetic because when I was growing up, I was always into fashion, but I was teased and ridiculed for what I wore. I didn’t want to stop wearing what I liked, but I wanted the teasing to stop.”

In order to appear more intimidating, Morrison joined a local gym. He didn’t take weightlifting too seriously for the first two years, until he graduated from high school and stopped playing football.

“I needed something to commit to after football,” Morrison says, “so at that point, I went all in. I discovered Jeff Seid, who’s a famous bodybuilder – really good-looking guy – and he was kind of my second inspiration. Ronaldo got me started on my journey, but Seid pushed me to take it to the next level.”

Only three years into bodybuilding, Morrison achieved fourth place in the men’s physique division at his first bodybuilding competition in Peterborough. Having done so without a coach – unusual in the industry – this could be seen as a great accomplishment. For Morrison, however, fourth place was an insult.

“After that show, I decided not to compete again – at least for a while,” he says. “I was just so focused on getting first place that, to me, getting fourth was a slap in the face. I felt like I just wasn’t good enough.”

Halfway through sharing this story, Morrison becomes distracted. “Should I post this [on Instagram]?” he asks, showing a picture of himself on his phone.

In the photograph, he wears a fitted white t-shirt and lime-green cargo pants. Morrison’s body looks muscular and proportioned; his shoulders are filled out, and the white t-shirt makes him look well-defined. He looks handsome in the photo, yet he asks: “I look fat, don’t I?” When assured that he looks muscular, Morrison shakes his head in disbelief.

“I was just so focused on getting first place that, to me, getting fourth was a slap in the face. I felt like I just wasn’t good enough.”

“Almost 100 percent of the people who have competed have dealt with some sort of body dysmorphia or eating disorder,” says Gomez, “and that includes the guys too. Binge eating happens to the best of the best. After a show, you’re finally able to eat [what you want], and because you’ve been starving your body during prep, it doesn’t know how to tell you when to stop.”

Accord to Tsap, this is because finding balance can really be a struggle. “After every show I’ve rebounded,” she says, “indulging in a lot of sweets, donuts and cakes. I know it’s not good, but you just can’t help yourself.”

Gomez says: “You feel so disgusting. You hate yourself, and after putting your body through that, you’re exhausted. So, you fall asleep, feeling horrible – physically and emotionally – and you promise yourself you’ll never do it again. But you do.”

Like Gomez and Tsap, Morrison dealt with disordered eating after a show.  “I started reintroducing foods I hadn’t eaten in over two years,” he says. “I guess you could call it binge eating – but not really. It was more like, I would eat junk in excess because I just hadn’t eaten it in so long. For about a year after the show, I kind of just ate whatever I wanted because, for two years prior, I had been so strict with my diet.”

During a binge eating episode, the person often loses control of their own actions. “You’re going so fast,” says Gomez, “and you’re eating anything and everything you can, to the point where it doesn’t make sense anymore – it’s not even food you enjoy, it’s just food. And you don’t stop until you feel like puking and you physically cannot eat anymore. Then you purge.”

While not every binging episode is followed by a purge, it is common belief that doing so will expel all the food that was ingested. However, the Centre for Clinical Interventions in Australia released an infographic in 2018  stating that vomiting after a binge-eating episode cannot get rid of all the calories ingested. Additionally, a well-known 1993 micro-study showed that about half the calories ingested in a single binge are retained, even when followed by a purge.

“You’re supposed to be living this healthy lifestyle, but you’re not,” says Banas. “People look at you and think ‘wow you have such low body fat, you must be healthy,’ but little do they know what’s really going on.”

While bodybuilding at a competitive level was detrimental to Gomez’s health, Tsap and Banas both enjoy it and intend to continue competing in bodybuilding shows in the near future. “You need to have the right support system in place,” says Tsap. “And you need to find a balance. You can’t always be at the gym and never eat a donut, and then feel guilty when you do eat a donut.”

For Tsap, bodybuilding enabled her to take charge of other parts of her life. “Because of competing, I gained the ability to say no, to focus on myself and put myself first,” she says. “I’m comfortable now making myself number one and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

Gomez agrees: “The amount of self-discipline you gain helps you in so many other aspects of life. You’re able to accomplish anything after that.”

Despite having chosen never to enter a bodybuilding competition again, Gomez says weightlifting is still a significant part of her life. Without the pressure of competition, she finds it enjoyable and helpful to her mental and physical health. She applies this passion, and the self-discipline she gained from competing, toward growing her online business.

Now with over 106,000 Instagram followers, Gomez works on her business full-time. She has built a 12-week program to help women achieve their health and fitness goals. It includes a roster of educational videos on health and nutrition, custom healthy recipes, tailor-made weightlifting plans, and there are several more expansive projects to come.

Gomez knows that although many bodybuilders and weightlifters experience some form of disordered eating, few ever confront it the way she has. As such, she treats her clients with a level of care that most coaches may lack due to her experience with disordered eating.

Binge-free since September 2019, Gomez has overcome her eating disorder through therapy. There’s no guarantee it won’t return, but for now, it feels like a weight off her shoulders, and the rest of her body.

Javheria Ibrahim, a Toronto-based freelance writer, can be reached at javheria.ibrahim@gmail.com

Selling Sex for Degrees

SOME TORONTO FEMALE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS TURN TO ESCORTING TO PAY FOR THEIR EDUCATION.

By Anastasiya Ivanova | Featured image courtesy of Pixabay | Updated January 7, 2020

On a March afternoon, Rosie* greets a 35- year-old Russian man at the door of the two-bedroom condo in downtown Toronto where she works. “Milan” hands the 24-year-old Ryerson University student a cup of tea and a single red rose. Every Friday, he brings her tea and flowers. They kiss before he sneaks into the master-bedroom shower and Rosie positions herself on the queen-sized bed, waiting. She takes off the blanket-like patterned scarf, letting the ends of her curly black hair brush her shoulders. Without the scarf, she is half naked: her plain grey underwear contrasts against her olive skin and shapes perfectly her slim body.

After “Milan” exists the shower, for the next half an hour they have sex. For the remaining half an hour, they cuddle, talking about the strangely warm March weather, politics, and Rosie’s school.

When their time is up, Rosie watches Milan get dressed. As soon as the door behind him closes, her eyes search for the $320 he left for her on the kitchen countertop. She retrieves her phone and types “He’s gone,” to Carolyn, her manager. Then she heads to the shower. Her next client is on his way.

 Rosie has been working as an escort at Sassy Angels, one of Toronto’s prominent “incall” agencies, since 2016 when she first enrolled in psychology at Ryerson University. No one knows exactly how many Rosies there are out there, but Rosie and four escort agency managers say this student/escort phenomenon is common. (A colleague of hers at the agency, a student at York University, didn’t wish to come forward for this piece. She was afraid I would recognize her on Keele campus.) But Rosie is brave enough to battle the stigma of such a double life that silences many girls like her.

“[Escorting] is not for everyone. Many girls in the agencies do it because they want to, not because they are forced.”

It’s a mid-morning Thursday in March. Rosie smiles into her paper coffee cup at the Second Cup at Yorkdale Mall. She looks like any other freshman enthusiastic about the future: ponytail, light lipstick, black-framed glasses, pink dress shirt, and dark jeans.

“Last semester my GPA was 3.9, so I am doing fairly well in school,” she says. “I also work two jobs: my escort job and another one at a delivery company.”

But with that job, even when she worked full-time, she found she couldn’t afford her tuition and the downtown cost of living. She could have applied for OSAP. But after graduation, she would have to spend years to pay off her debt, which she compares to a down payment on a house she wants to buy one day.

But Sassy Angels isn’t her first time as an escort. At age 18, straight out of high school, Rosie began working as an independent escort in Toronto.

“While I was in high school, I always saw these girls with expensive bags and shoes. Even if they wore sweatpants and their hair was in a messy bun, they still had perfect makeup,” she recalls. “Everyone knew what they did. They didn’t have the money for all this stuff. So, I wanted to try it out, as well.”

 Rosie found work through websites like xfinder.ca and Toronto.backpage.ca. She posted photos of herself under a nickname and described the services she provided.

“I didn’t like it because I quickly grew tired,” she reflects. “I had to spend a lot of time marketing myself and screening clients.” But the way out came when at the age of 20, Rosie was diagnosed with Lupus. She spent the next four years taking care of her health.

In 2016, Rosie decided to return to escorting, but this time she didn’t want to be her own manager. So, she began working for Sassy Angels.

“I went into this for a purpose: to provide for my education,” she says. “I know I will not do this forever.”

There are about 35 well-established “incall” escort agencies in Toronto. Incall means clients visit the escorts for services at properties rented by the escort agency, usually during the late morning until early evening. This differs from “outcall” agencies, where escorts provide services to the clients at the clients’ locations during the late evening and at night. The agencies say they follow ground rules to ensure the safety of their girls and clients. 

“Unethical escort agencies conduct practices such as exploiting the girls, coercing them to perform sexual acts for free, supplying drugs, charging unfair fees, and others,” says Don, the owner of competitor Top Drawer Ladies. “Ethical escort agencies operate like a professional business that doesn’t exploit the girls, treats them with respect, and has reasonable fees for services provided.”

But the main reason Rosie chose Sassy Angels was because it is female-owned and managed. She believes women in the business are more sensitive to the safety and comfort of female escorts. For example, Rosie fully trusts Carolyn, her manager, to properly screen and match Rosie with safe and suitable clients – a confidence she doesn’t have in male agency owners.

“[Escorting] is not for everyone. Many girls in the agencies do it because they want to, not because they are forced,” says Rosie, taking a sip from her coffee. “It is about who you are, what you are comfortable with, and where your boundaries lie.”

Rosie works three or four days per week, between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., depending on her school schedule. Carolyn’s commission is 40%, so Rosie’s weekly salary, after Carolyn’s cut, varies between $1000 and $1500 cash. A regular session with a client on average lasts between an hour and two hours.

“Escorts are required to provide clients with the girlfriend experience,” says Michael Casa, a former manager at a number of Toronto agencies. “They treat clients as if they are coming home to their girlfriends or wives.”

On a physical level, ‘the girlfriend experience’ includes oral sex without a condom and a sexual intercourse with a condom. The client can also ask for additional services, which he’s supposed to clearly negotiate with the escort.

“Pleasing the client is our priority because we heavily depend on reviews by customers,” says Rosie. “If a girl gets even one bad review, she is almost guaranteed that clients won’t come to her. Then, she has to change her nickname and sometimes even her appearance so the agency can continue to market her.”

Two of the most popular review boards for escort agencies in Toronto are Terb.cc and st411.cc. Clients often visit the boards to shop for the top or new girls in the business. There, the agencies generate numerous threads to market their girls, services, and promotions that can be decoded at https://escortdirectoryreviews.blogspot.ca/2008/10/common-abbreviations.html. Often such threads accompany promotional prices that are negotiated during booking time. But the clients are the ones who dictate the particulars of the services to the point of what the escorts wear during the session.

“I like that I experiment with my lingerie and makeup for clients,” Rosie says, blushing. “Also, I am quite a submissive girl, so I don’t mind dominant clients.”

 Rosie describes most of her clients as good-looking, middle to upper class, and many in relationships or married. She says they treat her with respect and always communicate with her their sexual preferences. But most clients prefer to be dominant during the sexual intercourse, while some want to explore their sexual fetishes. She remembers particularly the client she served last Sunday. He was a short, unpresentable man in his mid-fifties, who wanted to lick each other from head to toe.

“He was my worst experience at work,” says Rosie, giggling at the memory. “But most of my clients don’t come just for the sex. They come for the affection and attention I give them. Often, we would just talk and cuddle for most of the session’s duration.”

           

“I went into this for purpose: to provide for my education.”

Clients often get attached to Rosie and specifically book services with her. She cares for her clients, but she also knows that their relationship is strictly business. Escorts don’t see clients outside work, and clients aren’t allowed even to inquire about the girls’ real names, unless they decide to offer them.

 Rosie doesn’t seem ashamed of her work and doesn’t seem to find it immoral. But she says some of her colleagues are not comfortable with what they do.

“When I look at them at work, it is obvious. They just cannot relax,” she says. “But to do this kind of work, you have to know yourself. You have to listen to your body. You have to know your boundaries and know when to say no. I am a very open person, so I have no problem with what I do.”

The job comes with a lot of isolation. Rosie picks on her coffee cup in silence, contemplating the secret she cannot share with anyone close to her. She says she often wishes to take her mom to a nice restaurant and to pay for her sister’s college this coming September. But she can’t because she would have to explain where the money comes from.

We are constantly worrying about covering our tracks and keeping what we do secret,” she says grimly. “A lot of the girls have anxiety because of this secrecy.”

Rosie even avoids getting into a committed relationship. Currently, she has a man in her life, but she says the only reason is because he knows about her work and supports her. The girls also support each other in their solitude.

“At work, we hang out in the apartment, and after work, we often go shopping together. We are very close,” says Rosie.

Rosie and her colleagues are also in constant communication with Carolyn. She not only manages, promotes, and connects them with financial advisors, but she also protects them. She has installed panic buttons in every room of the agency’s condos to alert her immediately if something is wrong. Rosie says she has never had to use the panic buttons, but she is more confident in dealing with clients, knowing she has the option. Also, Rosie says Carolyn requires the escorts to always use a condom and immediately fires those who do not. On the other hand, she tells them they can leave the job anytime they want, no strings attached. But the one thing that still concerns Rosie is the unclear legal nature of the business in Canada.

In June, 2014, six months after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down pre-existing laws governing prostitution, the Parliament tabled new laws through Bill C-36, making illegal the solicitation for services and the purchase of sex.

“Unfortunately, in its current form, Bill C-36 continues to disadvantage and marginalize sex workers due to its punitive attitude towards prostitution,” writes Manpreet Abrol, a Political Science post-graduate from Western University.

Escort agencies and escorts tiptoe around the law.

“As long as we charge by the hour, it is legal,” says Rosie. “But it is illegal to charge for a sexual act. Some girls take that risk, but I am not one of them.”

Casa says that generally police turn a blind eye to escort agencies, unless escorts are underage or physically abused. Otherwise, they are on their own. Rosie admits that when she or her colleagues run into a problem, such as clients stealing from them or refusing to pay the escort agency, they don’t feel comfortable reporting to the police.

 The stigma surrounding the sex industry also puts their health in danger. Dr. Kate Shannon, the Director of the Gender & Sexual Health Initiative in Vancouver, says sex workers have the highest mortality rate among workers in Canada. That’s because they don’t have access to clinics, where they can get regular routine checks, treatment, and information about their health risks.

“I try to go to my family doctor for check-ups as often as I can without raising suspicion,” says Rosie. “But I wish there were established clinics for sex workers, where we can go and check ourselves regularly without having to lie or explain ourselves.”

Rosie also worries about young women who are forced into the industry. She says these women often begin unknowingly dating pimps, who later coerce them into prostitution. She wishes that women in the sex industry weren’t as afraid to stand up for these young women and tell them that they can say no; they can set their own boundaries.

On a personal level, Rosie plans graduate and go on to specialize in childhood education.

“I want to find better ways to teach children so that everyone finds what they are good at in life,” says Rosie, her faint smile returning to her lips.

She seems to believe that goal makes her life as an escort worth it.  

“Rosie” is not her real name.*

Anastasiya Ivanova is a Toronto-based freelance writer. For inquiries, please contact her at anastasiya.ivanova@hotmail.com.

Inspiring Actors

Jonathan Higgins offers Toronto actors unique ways to improve their craft.

By Anastasiya Ivanova | Featured image courtesy of Pexels | April 24, 2019

Jonathan Higgins presses his forearms into his chair’s armrests, supporting his body forward.  His face is inches away from a 20-inch TV, unflinching, studying. Inside the classroom of his Actor’s Imagination Studio (AIS), located in the heart of Little Italy in Toronto, he and his students study Amanda Cordner’s performance, displayed on camera. Cordner is a local, successful theatre actress and producer, known for her hit one-woman stage show, Body So Fluorescent. Tonight, she has stepped into the movie role of prosecutor Kate Whitney from the 1997 political thriller Absolute Power.

It is 9:20 p.m., on Sunday, in late May 2018. Forty minutes remain in the four-hour studio class, called Creating Full Life on Camera. Four more students still have to perform their assigned pieces, and 54-year-old Higgins will coach each for 20 to 45 minutes. It is not unusual for Higgins’s classes to run late, but all nine students, even the ones who have already performed, remain there to observe.

After Cordner has delivered her final line, Higgins keeps the camera rolling as if willing the reality created by the 29-year-old actress’s performance to linger a little longer. With a sharp “Cut,” he commands the end of the scene. The whole room takes a loud breath, making the hot air in the room shift. Higgins leaps off the chair and lunges towards Cordner, who is still in front of the camera. He stops at arm’s distance from her, his six-foot frame looming over her.

“How is this one feeling?” he asks.

“Strong. Connected. Clear,” she says.

“What will you take away from this?”

“My takeaway…” she says, pausing. Her brown eyes burn into Higgins and her face is still like a portrait: full lips, pinched nose, mocha-coloured skin, accented by her halo-like black afro. It is a moment longer before she relieves, “It’s just so easy when I am with you, Jonathan. I feel very free. This is the freest I’ve felt. I need to take this into an audition.”

Higgins is a unique coach. It is hard to articulate how he differs from other acting coaches. But the actors who have undergone his training begin by describing the freedom they experience when acting at AIS. For some, Higgins’s guidance is the reason they continue on their career path.

“In my classes, I offer my students situations where their talent emerges and where they recognize the barriers to their full expression and are able to push them off to the side,” says Higgins.

But how he does this and what makes him a unique coach is rooted in the way he was raised, the path he took to founding AIS and his life-long devotion to the art of acting in an industry that often dissects actors’ same devotion.

“Higgins announces the end of Belkin’s scene and bolts out of his chair with excitement.”

Higgins’s aquamarine eyes trace every gesture of Zoë Belkin’s face that’s shown on the TV in the studio. The 25-year-old film actress has the typical Hollywood look: classically feminine and eye-catching. She has pulled her dark chocolate hair into a high ponytail, revealing her almond-shaped eyes that give her face an eagle look. Her ivory skin accents a dark oval freckle on her right cheekbone. She sways with eagerness in the small mock audition space.

Belkin plays the role of a bookseller, Annie Black, in a scene from the 2000 comedy, State and Main. It is Belkin’s first stab at the part. In the scene, Black has run into screenwriter Joseph Turner White, whom she has been helping battle his writer’s block. They enter a long and intimate discussion about life, centered around the film’s script that White has been re-working, before they are interrupted by Doug Mackenzie, Black’s fiancé.

Minutes later, Higgins announces the end of Belkin’s scene and bolts out of his chair with excitement. He paces long steps between Belkin and the rest of the nine students who sit behind the TV. He begins discussing the scene with Belkin. His typical gestures during such moments—his hands pulling and tugging his wristwatch, then his palms tracing his salt-and-pepper hair, or his arms positioned in a thinker’s pose, pinching his nose—become more emotive.

“I think the scene is about the escape from the small town and her engagement, which she’s not happy with,” says Belkin.

“I don’t think it’s an escape. There’s this poem that goes like this: ‘For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: it might have been,’” says Higgins, quoting John Greenleaf Whittier, the 19th century American Quaker poet. “I’d like you to play with this idea: it is about that possibility for a different life.”

A smile begins to lift the corners of Belkin’s lips. A moment of silent understanding passes between them before Higgins marches back to his chair for the second take.

“Have fun with it, Zoë,” he says. “And…action!”

“When I was in elementary school, my two brothers and my sister created our own repertory theatre.”

Poetry and classical literature have always been a major part of Higgins’s life, shaping his acting experiences and teaching practices. The actor, who was born and raised in Boston, identifies his mother and siblings as the reason he loves literature and acting. He remembers his mother reading on the front porch in the summer afternoons and often taking him and his siblings to theatre productions.

“I had a very imaginative and lively upbringing,” he says. “When I was in elementary school, my two brothers and my sister created our own repertory theatre that we ran first out of the dining room and then from the stage we built in our large old garage (built 1912). We adapted musicals and books and would eventually have over 100 people from the neighbourhood spilling down the whole driveway out to the street to watch our summer shows.”

Higgins completed a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature at Vermont’s Middlebury College in 1988. In 1992, he received his MFA in acting from Temple University in Philadelphia where he first began teaching acting. In 1996, at age 31, Higgins relocated to Toronto with his wife, where he continued to act on stage and screen and coach privately.

In the summer of 2007, Higgins interested Daniel Kash, a Canadian actor and director, in directing John Kolvenbach’s comedy play, Fabuloso, which officially premiered in 2008, for the Toronto’s Summerworks Theatre Festival. In this four-person play, Higgins played the role of Teddy, a man trapped in a dull eight-year-long marriage, alongside Gemini Award-winning actors Angela Asher, Linda Kash and Nicholas Campbell. This play was the first one Higgins did after five years of him focusing solely on his film and television work.

“I remember summer, because of scheduling, our rehearsals were split by a hiatus that lasted for more than a couple of weeks. But Nick offered to me that we continue with rehearsals. We had the set already set up in Downtown Toronto. So for the next couple of weeks, Nick and I did just that. We would go to the set every morning and we would just rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. We had time off, but we didn’t take that time off.”

Higgins defines that rehearsal period as a reawakening one. He says the regiment he and Campbell established during the hiatus reawakened in him creative freedom that carried into his film auditions, making them better than ever.

“You can only get this kind of creative freedom through similar regimen and discipline, which is missing in the on-camera acting industry. The fast-paced and high-turnout nature of that industry deprives actors of the chance to train continuously. So it is hard for them to find the time and structure to fully and creatively explore a role in their film and TV work. I realized, we need a space where actors can have that regimen, repetition and artistic exploration, so they can get their work to be as full as it can be,” Higgins says.

After that summer, Higgins became passionate about creating a class where actors could experience the kind of work he did that summer. He believed that such classes could help actors produce better work and learn more. So in 2008, he discussed the idea with his Chicago-born colleague Michael Hanrahan, one of the founding members of Soulpepper, Toronto’s largest not-for-profit professional theatre company. At the time, Hanrahan coached at Big Voice Studios in Toronto, a voice-training studio run by celebrity vocal coach Elaine Overholt.

In January 2009, Higgins and Hanrahan opened Actor’s Imagination Studio with Overholt’s support, who marketed the classes and provided them with her studio’s space to begin the first sessions. Similar to other acting studios, the studio began running several six-week-long sessions a year with a class size of up to 10 students. Higgins or Hanrahan recorded all the students’ on-camera performances. After a session was completed, the coach helped students select their best scenes to add to their professional portfolios.

At AIS, Higgins could once again combine literature and acting. During classes, Higgins often refers his students to literature to help them envision the specificity of the circumstances in a scene, whether that is emotional, physical or psychological. He believes when acting, there has to be an ongoing imaginative narrative unfolding underneath the spoken lines.

“Acting is not a literary experience by any means,” says John Bourgeois, program director of the Film and Television program at Humber College. “It is very visceral, very emotional, and very instinctual impulsive experience. But novelists delve into the internal life of the character, which is what actors do, as well.”

He says Higgins uses literature as a tool to help AIS actors improve their work.

“Higgins is a very nurturing and supportive teacher who recognizes and understands the challenges actors face. He can put his finger on the problem and identify pathways to overcome them. Literature is one pathway that he uses to stimulate his students’ imagination.”

Samuel Volkov, one of Higgins’s newest students at AIS, presses his elbows against his thighs, leaning forward in the baby-blue metal chair that looks like it belongs at a garden party. It is noontime at a storage-sized café that is located just a couple of blocks away from AIS. But the reality of the café escapes the 29-year-old New-Jersey-born actor. He has concentrated his gaze on the ground, thinking, revisiting and reflecting on his training as an actor.

In 2011, when Volkov lived in Edmonton with his family, he was accepted into one of the most prestigious acting programs in North America: SUNY’s four-year BFA Acting Conservatory in New York. After graduating in 2015, he got an agent in California, where he relocated. But after nine trying months, he returned to Canada.

Volkov’s California agent connected the actor with Paul Hemrend, senior on-camera agent at Edna Talent Management in Toronto. At the beginning of 2018, Hemrend recommended three acting schools to Volkov where he could work on his craft, including AIS. The actor picked AIS.

“I knew Jon was a working actor. I’d done my research,” says Volkov. “As soon as I knew he was combining his professional side with his own humanity—to actually be fully present in the room with his students no matter who they are, no matter their background, to actually listen to them, appreciate them and give them all the time they needed no matter how lost they might be—I knew it was going to be great. It is really easy to see that quickly.”

“Jonathan’s approach is different because it gives me freedom.”

When in California, Volkov says he felt out of place and anxious because he got lost in the business side of the acting industry and the struggles that came with it. Even with an agent, he wasn’t getting enough auditions (only two for the nine months he was there). Volkov began doubting everything, including himself. That changed when he met Higgins. 

“Since I moved from California I have been feeling like I’ve been floating,” he says. “Acting for me in an exercise in compassion and empathy. It opens up both the actor and the audience to the shared experience of their humanity. When I started going to Jonathan’s class, I felt at last I was on my feet again and actually doing [precisely that]. He reminded me why I got into [acting] because he got me back into a place where I was working again.”

Since joining AIS, Volkov is not the only actor who has found strength to overcome the acting industry’s challenges and to continue to believe in his work and path. Higgins says that many of his AIS students are graduates from university and college acting programs. Many return to his studio year after year, like Belkin and Cordner.

Belkin has been acting professionally and studying acting since she was 13 years old.

“Acting is my passion, but it is also my therapy,” she says.

In August 2015, Belkin sought a school that would introduce her to different approaches to acting and help her expand her professional skills. A colleague referred her to AIS.

“I have studied at many acting studios and with different coaches. But Jonathan’s approach is different because it gives me freedom,” Belkin says. “That’s when I do my best work.”

After completing two movie projects in 2016—the American horror film, The Wanting, and the Canadian sci-fi, Darken—Belkin once again returned to the studio. In March 2018, she signed up for Higgins’s classes for the third time. After that, she also took several private coaching classes with Higgins to help her prepare for the lead roles she landed in the upcoming US feature films, Hotwired in Suburbia and Undying, as well as her role in the 2017 internationally co-produced drama television series, Ransom. She believes that when not working, professional actors always have to continue improving their craft. She does this under Higgins’s guidance.

Students at AIS say it is also their coach’s devotion to each of his students that evokes this shared feeling of freedom when acting and helps them produce their best work.  

“There is no pressure. I feel I can play,” says Cordner, who attended her first session with Higgins in 2014, while enrolled at another acting studio.

In 2015, she did her first web series, The Village Green, and, in 2016, she co-created Body So Fluorescent, a solo stage performance, which she has been touring across Canada ever since. But in March 2018, she returned once again to AIS.

“I really wanted to get back into training. During auditions, you have seconds to make scenes happen. I remembered the great time I had with Jonathan in 2014,” she says. “Whatever I prepare or bring to class, he helps me bring it out even further. He really pays attention to you as a person. He has a way of looking at me when I am not looking at me, and his love for [acting] inspires me.”

Higgins says that when working with his students, his priority is to get to know them as performers: their unique abilities, qualities (mannerism, voice, accent, etc.) and fears. He then helps them overcome these fears and bring their abilities and qualities into their work, making their acting stand out and noticeable.  

For example, Cordner says he tends to assign her highly emotional scenes. She finds such scenes challenging, but they often become examples of her best work and remind her why she has chosen this career path.

“I had this amazing class last week,” she says. Higgins had assigned her to play the role of a young woman who sees her father for the first time in three years. But her father is in a coma. “It’s a challenge to sit in these heavy emotions and tell a story clearly and authentically. But at the end of my performance, one of the students was crying. I knew this is it. Jonathan helps me continue to believe in myself because I want to quit every day. He finds how you shine and rubs you the right way.”

“Just make it your story. I know it sounds like a trope. But it’s the thing I’ve seen activating over and over again.”

Inside the studio, silence stretches between Cordner and Higgins. She awaits his advice to the challenge she faces: how does she mirror her experiences in studio, where she produces such strong work, during her auditions?

“What I would say is…” says Higgins and pauses again without breaking his posture. After a beat, he finds movement in his body that compels to whole room to begin shifting. “What I would say is just tell your story. Tell your body’s story. Don’t think about the strangers watching you or casting you. Not anybody in the world is equally capable of getting inside us and affecting us the way you individually can do. Just make it your story. I know it sounds like a trope. But it’s the thing I’ve seen activating over and over again.”

His words drown the room. Cordner beams at him. Higgins nods, as if they have just finally reached an agreement, and heads back to his chair.

“Nicely done. On we go,” he says.

He relaxes his body into his chair, looking around the studio and at the remaining students. They know it is going to be a late class. But they are in sync with Higgins, because he is there, inside the small classroom, with and for them. He believes that inside the Actor’s Imagination Studio, everyone is an actor, and that what matters the most is the devotion to acting. But AIS students believe Higgins is more than that: he is the actor who inspires their dreams.

Anastasiya Ivanova is a Toronto-based freelance writer. For inquiries, please contact her at anastasiya.ivanova@hotmail.com.