The Real Witches of Toronto

As a professor at OCAD, the founder of Toronto’s first pagan festival, and a witch, Monica Bodirsky is anything but the average Torontonian.

By Shahroze Rauf | Featured photo courtesy of Shahroze Rauf | April 22, 2019

Crystal pendants of black quartz and a clear white gem hang around Monica Bodirsky’s neck, framed by brightly coloured locks of red hair.  A 57-year-old professor at OCAD University, she teaches sustainability, design, and drawing. And she’s just what you’d expect of an art teacher. Her quintessential dyed, edgy hair and a laid back and surprisingly cheerful attitude contrast her dark wardrobe. She is also a witch.

Her Toronto house is adorned in almost every corner with symbols and objects emblematic of her pagan beliefs. One of the most distinctive, and seemingly typical objects in her house, is a collection of short broomsticks. One in particular hangs to the left of the entrance: a simple wooden handle not longer than two feet, with another two feet of yellow straw bristles held together by two thin black strings.

“A broom is used to literally cleanse with sweeping,” Bodirsky says. “You’re focusing your intent on getting rid of the negativity and sweeping it out the door. There’s a great deal of integration between physical movement and activity with your spirits.”

From sweeping magic with brooms to tarot readings and herbal poultices, Bodirsky is one of the many real witches of Toronto who practice magic every day. She attends rituals and even has her own coven. But, most importantly, she is the founder of Toronto’s first pagan month-long convention, WITCHfest North, and one of the few forces in Toronto leading the pagan community out of the shadows. 

Many witches and warlocks follow a tradition dating back to the early 1900s – the revolution of modern witchcraft known as Wicca. According to American religious history professor, J. Gordon Melton, who teaches at Baylor University, the history of Wicca leads back to a man named Gerald Brosseau Gardner.

Born in 1884 in the small town of Great Cosby in Blundellsands, Lancashire, Gardner would come to be dubbed internationally as the “Father of Wicca.”

“Gardner spent most of his career in Asia, where he became familiar with a variety of occult beliefs and magical practices,” says Melton. “He also read widely in Western esoteric literature, including the writings of the British occultist Aleister Crowley.”

After World War II, Gardner is said to have been involved with an occult community somewhere in England, which led him to become the founder of Wicca. The practice is nature-based, surrounding the phenomena of magic and the worship of the goddess, alongside other deities. A decade later in the 1960s, Wicca flourished throughout the U.S., Melton says.

Another decade later, Bodirsky and her family moved from the Scandinavian region of Northern Europe, into Canada in the 1970s. At the time, she remembers how her parents simply wanted her to fit in. This was around the time Bodirsky began to realize they weren’t necessarily like other families.

“I come from a line of seers. They are clairvoyant, clairaudient, clairsentient — go through all the ‘clairs,” she says. “They would have a precognition and they would see certain things coming and tell people about that.”


“These traditions – what the mainstream would perceive as magic or witchcraft – were simply a way of life for Bodirsky’s predecessors.”

Her family’s ‘magical’ practice was abstract. From relying on the phases of the moon to herbal mixtures and poultices and seasonal timing, Bodirsky defines the practice in general as beyond physical and rather spiritual.  

But during the lives of her ancient ancestors, Christianity flourished throughout Europe. And, as a result, her family’s teachings and traditions were persecuted and driven away. But these traditions – what the mainstream would perceive as magic or witchcraft – were simply a way of life for Bodirsky’s predecessors.

“They didn’t define themselves as witches because that was just not a term anyone used. Folk magic, practical magic, yes. There’s still this stigma about using certain terms because my family has had to move from place to place to avoid persecution. So, they weren’t very upfront about it,” she says. “It was so inextricable from my family’s life that it’s strange in a way for me to have it seen as such a separate thing.”

Growing up as a child in Scarborough in the 70s, and feeling she had these sensitive abilities, Bodirsky was encouraged not to attract attention to herself. Her parents told her to simply fit in to the best of her ability.

“My parents were hypersensitized to having to leave after post-war Europe and be bounced around as refugees and displaced persons. They told us to do what you can to fit in. And if those people are eating horrific white bread, just eat it. We’ll eat our own food at home.”

However, things are now different for witches. Especially now that it’s been almost three years since Canada repealed an outdated witchcraft ban in Section 365 of Canada’s Criminal Code. Trying to tone down and fit in is no longer a concern for Bodirsky and many other witches who gathered on Halloween night this past October for WITCHfest North.

It was a gathering of around 80 witches and warlocks on the night of a Gaelic pagan festival called Samhain, which comes right after Halloween. They all stood in a circle in the Trinity Square labyrinth on Elm St. in the heart of downtown Toronto and participated in a sort of ritual: three women in the middle brewed a concoction while speaking incantations that hailed the elements and various deities, after which the circle sang a song, welcoming the night of Samhain.

“We have come to the labyrinth tonight,” they sang, walking in a line tracing the circle that frames the Trinity Square Labyrinth. “Walking one by one, in the dark of Samhain, a riddle burning bright, and the candles waving down.” They repeated these verses over and over, as each member of the moving circle crossed in front of Bodirsky, who held a jar of mixed dried herbs to be taken and dropped in the cauldron at the centre of the circle.

“We’re here to build a community,” Bodirsky told the circle. “Put aside our egos and all our differences in practices and just share the common spirit and one common time and be here – with one another. If not for all of you participating, we wouldn’t have had the month of successes that we’ve had. This is only the second year and so many beautiful people have come out and introduced themselves, so thank you very much for that!”

The WITCHfest North closing march to Trinity Square | Courtesy of Lisa East.

Bodirsky tells the story about how the Canadian Criminal code is what led her to be inspired and start WITCHfest North.

“I heard about all of the sections from a Bill C 51 being rigid and one of them, 365, was about witchcraft. It was being reworked and it has been stricken. I thought since it’s being stricken from the record, I’m going to put an event on Facebook.”

Bodirsky decided to take the month of October and have witches who were already holding events of their own join WITCHfest North. According to her, it was simply an easy and informal way for individual workshops and witches to be a part of a larger organization.

“It’ll just give us more of a presence and visibility if we become a consolidated community and certainly one that reflects the diversity of Toronto, which I don’t find some organizations do,” says Bodirsky.

She adds that she expected no more than 20 people to join in. But when her Facebook event page hit 1,200, she was shocked. Bodirsky banded together several organizers to facilitate events all throughout October. And it worked.

Within the month, there were a variety of events, such as an art display at the Beaver Hall Gallery, a panel discussion at U of T on decolonizing witchcraft, and guest speaker, Aysen Farag, a witch from Egypt, who talked about her brand of indigenous African witchcraft.

“It’s been a success. People are coming together and they’re sharing,” Bodirsky says.

But aside from uniting people of diverse backgrounds to practice witchcraft together, she had another goal – to show the people of Toronto, and those witches who practice in private, who witches really are as a community.

“I would just like [WITCHfest North] to be large enough and diverse enough that people can see beyond stereotypes. It’s an arts and cultural festival. These are artisans who happen to be witches because when you look at it that way, you’re understanding diversity,” Bodirsky says.

As the WITCHfest North closing walk and Samhain ritual on Halloween night came to an end, the circle of witches and warlocks erupted in howls and cheers. Practitioners of all kinds, alongside non-pagan participants, broke off into conversation. The intimacy of the night seemed to have demystified what magic happens between a circle of witches in the dead of night. 

“The more familiar people are, the less afraid they’ll be because they’ll just see a such a diversity. They’ll take you as an individual instead of just as that word, witch, which can be said for anybody in any community. You have to have community support,” Bodirsky says.

She is dedicated to making her vision of establishing her community as a visible and integral part of Toronto a reality, according to her WITCHfest North manifesto. Her plans going forward are to attract more people to the event, and hold it on a larger scale.

But if people do come with prejudice, they won’t need to worry about attracting hexes or curses. The only thing anyone is in danger of is losing an opportunity to learn about a world where magic and witches are not a fairy tale, but rather a vital part of faith and life.

Shahroze Rauf is a freelance writer and Creative Director for The Scribbler. For inquiries, please contact him at shahroze78@hotmail.com.

Bar Bills: the Other Victims of York’s Recent Strike

Picketing may have ended, but the effects of the recent labour disruption are still impacting businesses across campus.

By Ethan Saks | Featured image courtesy of Pixabay | April 21, 2019

Dust hangs in the bar’s beer-scented air, twinkling through the naturally lit room like falling stars. Rickety chairs and scuffed tables shows the age of the pub.

On March 5, 2018, the Absinthe pub (known by patrons as “the Ab”), an aging bar hidden in the basement of one of York University’s nine colleges, is having one of its busiest days of the year.

Students order pint after pint. A lone bartender tries to keep up, running from one side of the bar to the other, pouring shots of vodka, tequila, rum, shaking cocktails, filling pint glasses with cheap beer and scraping the cascading foam off the top with a knife. But despite the smiles and laughter filling the room, the pub’s management team is grim. Students are celebrating the beginning of the third strike that has occurred at York University in the last 10 years.

Discussions about a labour disruption at York had been brewing long before the beginning of the 2017 school year. CUPE 3903 members—York’s local union representing teaching assistants, contract faculty, and graduate assistants—are unhappy with their current contracts, despite the university administration declaring that it is one of the best in the sector. Picketing began on March 5, and saw union members blocking every major roadway leading to the university. An anonymous union member says that they’re “one of the only unions in Ontario who are willing to strike.”

Two weeks later, the sprawling campus will be abandoned, and Ian Pedley, general manager of the Ab for over 30 years, will be praying that the pub can sell more than just a couple of pints each day. Campus restaurants, bars, convenience stores, and everything in-between struggle to stay afloat. This kind of thing tends to happen when over 50,000 students are forced to stop attending classes.

“Here’s how it works,” Pedley says. His office mimics the financial state of the pub. Paperwork covers the entire desk—Sky Vodka and Budweiser signs hang loose and angled on the walls. He takes hits from an e-cigarette the size of his hand while explaining everything that’s gone wrong since the picketing began.

“During a strike, the first week of business is okay. Students know there’s no classes, and that there’s nothing to do, so they want to socialize in the pub. After the strike drags on they start to wonder why they’re spending all their money at York without learning anything. Then they go home. You know what I mean?”

Once the students started to go home, and the restaurant was left empty, Pedley says that next to nothing was done to help the businesses on campus survive. Not a single thought was given about the impact that the strike might have had on their profits.

“There was no support,” he says. “None.”

The Absinthe Pub located in Winters College at York University. | Image courtesy of Excalibur Publications.

Shopsy’s Sports Grill, a popular student bar located in the middle of one of York’s bustling food courts, also fell  victim to the university’s lack of support. Since picketing began, their profits have plummeted. Only one week after the beginning of the labour disruption, the expansive pub is nearly empty.

Laura Bannon, a server, bartender, and occasional administrative assistant at Shopsy’s since August 2016, says that the lack of support from the university made a significant impact on how the restaurant has had to operate.

“We cut hours and had to lay people off. We had to let go of all the bussers and hostesses, and the servers were cut in half. That’s over 15 people,” says Bannon.

The Ab tries to figure out ways to bring in customers before letting anybody go. Around the beginning of April, over a month since the strike began, Pedley tries to fill his empty bar by offering the CUPE 3903 picketers a place to relax, eat, and drink. He refers to these events as “picketing parties.”

There is irony  in the fact that the union members who are sitting at tables, drinking, laughing, and helping the Ab survive, are simultaneously contributing to the downfall of one of Ontario’s last student-run bars. The decline of what used to be a diamond in the rough for social culture at York—a place where students could meet up, drink, study, and party, sometimes all at the same time. The strike is tearing The Ab to the ground.

“I’ve cancelled our Christmas Party,” Pedley says in the midst of explaining all the small things he’s had to do to keep the business afloat. “We open at three in the afternoon because we lose more money than we earn if we open earlier. The strike continues to impact us because our customer base is no longer here.”

Eventually, Pedley did have to let some of his staff go. Less business means less money for the employees. He laid off close to half of his staff because their payroll was becoming too cumbersome. “They’re students,” Pedley says. “They need the money just as much as the restaurant.”

Bannon shares the same concerns as Pedley regarding the staff who were let go.

“Most of our staff are students,” she says. “They have tuition and bills to pay.” Besides the lack of classes, some students are now also out of work.

Some restaurants remained closed for the entirety of the strike, leaving all of their staff jobless. Me-Va-Me Kitchen Express, a popular Mediterranean restaurant attached to one of York’s new residence buildings left a note on their doors that they would reopen at the end of the labour disruption. The restaurant did not survive.


“Nobody fears the looming shadow of a future strike more than the businesses that are still recovering from the last one.”

On July 25, 2018, over 140 days after the official start of the longest labour disruption in Canadian post-secondary history, CUPE 3903 members stop picketing as the newly elected Conservative provincial government passes back-to-work legislation. Union members, students, and university staff are left confused about what happens next. Discussions about the future begin to brew. Devin Lefebvre, recently appointed chairman of CUPE 3903, insinuates that another strike might not be far away.

“A lot of work needs to be done to make sure that, come 2020, we don’t have to do this all over again and the same mistakes aren’t made,” Lefebvre says. CUPE 3903 is already preparing for battle.

Nobody fears the looming shadow of a future strike more than the businesses that are still recovering from the last one. Restaurants like the Ab and Shopsy’s are still trying everything they can to get back on their feet.

“During the strike was the hardest,” Bannon says. “We’ve gained back a fair amount of business, but it’s still nothing like it used to be. It’s been especially hard because enrollment is down now too, which of course impacts the amount of customers we see on a daily basis.”

Enrollment numbers traditionally fall after a strike. Following CUPE 3903’s 2008 labour disruption, the beginning of the 2009 school year saw high school applications to York fall from 6,331 students to 5,891, a drop of almost 500 students.

After a month long labour disruption that occurred in March 2015, enrollment numbers decreased by over 4,500 students in arts, humanities, and social science programs compared to the previous year. Science programs also followed this downwards trend and decreased by over 900 students at the start of the 2016 school year.

Less students means less customers. They are the reason campus restaurants are able to exist in the first place. Bannon, who has been serving students for over three years, says it also doesn’t help that the students who are enrolled seem to be fed up with the university.

“Students don’t want to be on campus,” she says. This is a regular opinion among her customers. “Instead of staying on campus and going to its bars and restaurants, they’d rather leave when they’re done class and go somewhere else.”

The Ab is doing everything it can think of to bring students into the pub, and keep the establishment running. Aside from taking a loan from one of the university’s college councils, Pedley is also trying to bring in local bands, hoping that the members will bring friends to support them and buy a few pints. Furthering the fight for survival, Pedley is also trying to think of new events, and is pushing some of the past favourites, such as lingerie night, and karaoke competitions, more than he ever has in the past.

“We’re trying to survive,” Pedley says. “We’re trying everything we can to keep the doors open. A strike changes everything.”

Shopsy’s and the Ab still stand. They struggle to survive more than usual, but both establishments seem to be pulling through. The possibility of another strike is frightening, and neither restaurant may survive another 140 days of picketing without customers.

For the Ab, Pedley says that another strike “is not an option.” It would be debilitating, and without question, the Ab would go under.

Ethan Saks is a freelance writer, Senior Submissions Editor and Developer for The Scribbler. For inquiries, please contact him at ethans@my.yorku.ca.

How to Save a Marsh

With Canada’s wetlands disappearing at an alarming rate, the fight to save the Rattray Marsh became even more important.

By John Wilson | Featured photo courtesy of David Dibert from Pexels | April 19, 2019

Nina Munteanu, an ecologist and writing instructor at the University of Toronto, was devastated when she heard that long-time Mississauga City Councillor Jim Tovey had died suddenly on January 15, 2018 at age 68. In November 2017, Tovey had taken Munteanu on a guided tour of the proposed site of Inspiration Lakeview. The plan for the site is an ambitious one, calling for the rezoning of the land previously occupied by the Lakeview Generating Station to make way for a 26-hectare man-made wetland along the eastern shore of Mississauga’s waterfront, a short drive from the Long Branch GO Station. Munteanu says Tovey was “so in his element” that day, “joyful and inspirational.”

Inspiration Lakeview was Tovey’s brainchild, and the project will be carried out by the Credit Valley Conservation authority (CVC) and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), according to the City of Mississauga’s masterplan for the site. It is going to be modelled after the only remaining natural wetland along the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario, Rattray Marsh, which is a few kilometres to the west.

Munteanu notes that Canada has lost nearly 70% of its natural wetlands as a direct result of human interference. Rattray Marsh is a rare success in the conservation of these sensitive ecosystems, making it an example for the Inspiration Lakeview team to follow.

For many years, the key figure in the conservation of Rattray Marsh was Ruth Hussey. In 1954, Hussey, a thirty-eight-year-old veterinarian by trade, moved to the southwest corner of Toronto Township (now Mississauga), with her young family in tow. She soon fell in love with the nearby lakefront property owned by Colonel James Rattray, who encouraged Hussey and her children to swim and fish in Lake Ontario. Rattray offered to sell his 148-acre property to the township in the mid-1950s, for use as a conservation area, but the offer went unanswered by the township council.

After Rattray died in 1959, at age 72, part of his property was sold to developers. For a time in the 1960s there was a plan to develop the entire property into a subdivision, marina and yacht club—it was envisioned as a resort for the rich and famous, a “Florida of the north,” as Jean Williams, chairperson of the Rattray Marsh Protection Association (RMPA), dubs it derisively. The appeal of the Rattray property, with is dense deciduous forests, cobbled beaches and diversity of wildlife, was intense for Hussey, and she refused to let the property be developed without a fight. Thanks largely to the determination of a band of local citizens under Hussey’s leadership, the municipal government eventually saw the wisdom in acquiring the remaining 95 acres of the property.

Williams, who succeeded Hussey as chairperson of the RMPA following Hussey’s death in 1984, has been involved with conservation efforts at the marsh since she moved to Mississauga in 1975. Fortuitous timing, for that was the same year the City of Mississauga, under its first mayor, Martin L. Dobkin, finally saw the wisdom of purchasing the Rattray Marsh property, south of Lakeshore Road West and a few kilometres west of the Credit River. “Though Dobkin’s tenure was brief, administration significantly changed the city’s evolution,” John Stewart, a retired Mississauga News columnist, wrote in 2014.

Dobkin was an early proponent of including greenspaces in urban planning. In addition to the marsh, his administration oversaw the acquisition of many other parks and public lands in Mississauga, an expensive move that was derided at the time, but the value of which in the decades since has been incalculable. Munteanu says it was the acquisition of such properties decades ago that allows people today “to connect with, and develop an appreciation for, nature in urban centres.” If anything, building cities around the natural environment enhances the tranquility of greenspaces. Without leaving the city, Rattray Marsh provides people with an escape from the busyness of life on the west side of Mississauga’s waterfront.

“The marsh, according to CVC, is currently home to 428 species of plants, 227 species of bird, 26 mammals, 18 reptiles and amphibians, and 11 species of fish.”

Beyond Hussey’s efforts, there were other factors that influenced the newly-formed Mississauga City Council to purchase the Rattray Marsh property in the early 1970s for use as a conservation centre. The CVC website states that, in 1969, the marsh was recognized by the federal government “as an environmentally significant Area, a provincially significant wetland, and an area of natural and scientific interest including a number of protected species at risk.” More importantly, Stewart says that heavy rains flooded the marsh in 1973, which reduced the asking price for the property from nearly two million dollars to a little over one, more in line with the new city’s modest budget.

Nonetheless, Williams and Stewart both say the real savior of Rattray Marsh was Hussey. At the entrance to the marsh from Old Poplar Row, one of several side entrances from the surrounding neighbourhood, there is a plaque that reads: “Ruth Hussey—because of her, Rattray Marsh is ours.” When Stewart interviewed Hussey in the late 1970s, she was blind, had a guide dog by her side, and had difficulty moving, due to advanced arthritis. But she still took him on a tour of the marsh, and showed him the highlights from memory. A short time before their interview, Hussey’s doctor told her she should stop walking. She ignored her doctor’s advice, telling Stewart that she had been walking all her life and did not want to stop. Because of her, people today continue to enjoy walking the trails at Rattray.

Urbanization, and the resulting build-up of sediment in Sheridan Creek, which flows through the marsh out to Lake Ontario, poses a significant threat to the diversity and sustainability of wildlife at Rattray. It is a threat made worse by the presence of invasive exotic carp, which, as Williams explains, disturb the sediment in the water to feed. The marsh, according to CVC, is currently home to 428 species of plants, 227 species of bird, 26 mammals, 18 reptiles and amphibians, and 11 species of fish.

As the only natural lakefront wetland along the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario, Rattray Marsh is a priority area not just for CVC and the City of Mississauga, but also the federal and provincial ministries of natural resources. There are a lot of stakeholders invested in seeing the continued preservation of Rattray Marsh. This has been helpful for funding projects at the marsh, because the volunteer-run RMPA no longer has to rely on the generosity of wealthy, anonymous local benefactors to carry out conservation projects. Canada 150 signs, signalling support from the federal government’s Community Infrastructure Program, are now sprinkled throughout the property.

No matter the involvement of higher levels of government, the community surrounding Rattray Marsh remains heavily involved in its upkeep, as Williams is quick to point out. Many local residents have homes that back directly onto the Marsh and they are quick to report sightings of invasive species of plant and animal life and assist in cleaning up waste. RMPA organizes spring cleanup days, which are well-attended each year. Freyja Whitten, the invasive species coordinator for CVC, says that, in the last seven years, volunteers from the local neighbourhood have put in over 500 hours cleaning up the marsh, helping to restore its biological diversity and ensure its long-term health and sustainability.

Rattray Marsh is one part of the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail, which extends from Niagara-on-the-Lake in the west to Brockville in the east. The Waterfront Trail was opened in 1995, following a 1988 report from the Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, chaired by former Toronto Mayor David Crombie. Williams caught up with Crombie, an old friend, last October, when they were on the 2017 Conservation Authorities Biennial Tour, a guided tour of sites controlled by CVC and Conservation Halton. During their chat at the marsh, Crombie lamented the fact that the Waterfront Trail is not as natural everywhere as it is at Rattray, that in many places the trail is obviously manufactured.

While man-made green spaces are the cause of concern for Crombie, they are not for Munteanu. A limnologist with a degree from Concordia University, meaning she is trained in the study of inland waters, Munteanu now teaches writing courses at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. The author of the 2016 book Water Is…, a critical look at the importance of Canada’s wetlands, Munteanu says that we have our work cut out for us if there is to be any hope of preserving wetlands. In her words, they are among the “least-appreciated” ecosystems, because of their hybrid nature.

“With the loss of more than two-thirds of Canada’s wetlands, we have also lost much of the services these spaces offer.”

In Munteanu’s field, the technical term for wetland is ecotone—a term referring to the convergence of two ecosystems into one. In particular, the convergence of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. With the loss of more than two-thirds of Canada’s wetlands, we have also lost much of the services these spaces offer. Wetlands serve as natural combatants to climate change. The fertile soil in wetlands acts as a “carbon sink,” in Munteanu’s words, storing carbon and other pollutants that otherwise would be in the atmosphere. So, manufactured green spaces like Inspiration Lakeview have become necessary to fill this important role.

By mixing terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, wetlands also provide a balance and complexity that would otherwise be lacking in our ecosystems. This allows them to act as a refuge for plant and animal life. But a diversity of wildlife can only thrive at places like Rattray Marsh thanks to the efforts of CVC’s Whitten and others in her field.

Whitten defines invasive species as any species of plant or animal that is not native to an area and outcompetes and outgrows the native wildlife. By the time Whitten and CVC were getting involved with invasive species management at Rattray Marsh in 2009, it was too late to reverse the damage that had been done by the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), a beetle that infected the ash trees in the region. The effect the EAB has had on the canopy at Rattray has been, in some areas, devastating, leaving gaping holes in the sky where a few short years ago there were tall, healthy-looking trees.

Even if Whitten’s team had come aboard the struggle with the EAB sooner, it is unlikely they would have been successful in affecting a meaningful change—a chronic lack of dedicated funding for CVC means there is only so much she can do, regardless of support for other conservation projects from the federal and provincial governments.

On other fronts, Whitten’s team has enjoyed greater success. Purple loosestrife, a beautiful flowering plant that takes over waterways and crowds out virtually all other organisms, is under control at Rattray, thanks to years of effort. And invasive carp are now blocked from swimming up Sheridan Creek by a mesh fencing where the creek flows out to Lake Ontario. Those efforts have been so successful that Whitten now provides advice to other conservation authorities on the best management practices for dealing with those invasive species.

By coordinating with other conservation authorities, Whitten is accomplishing a key goal of the Ontario Invasive Plant Council (OIPC). As OIPC’s chairperson Kellie Sherman explains, ten years ago there was a crying need for an umbrella organization to “bridge municipalities” and coordinate the battle against invasive species among all of the province’s conservation authorities. OIPC has provided that service and, while a lack of money is still an issue, Sherman says the organization is “getting there” in in terms of funding.

Back at Rattray, for Whitten it is a case of getting one step ahead and then falling back again in the fight against invasive species. The carp are under control, but high-water levels in the marsh last spring resulted in the reintroduction of invasive plants, such as the tall perennial grass Phragmites, in areas where Whitten had gotten their presence under control. So high were the waters in 2017, Williams said that she cannot recall a worse year for flooding in the marsh in the four decades she’s lived in the area. It’s an uphill battle to maintain the health and biodiversity of Rattray Marsh and other wetlands, but for Whitten the fight never ends.

About the outlook for the marsh, Williams is optimistic. She is in her late eighties, though her vigour belies that fact and she prefers to say, “I’m as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth.” Young people give her a reason to be optimistic in the twilight of her years. In a transatlantic accent similar to the actress Angela Lansbury’s voice in its patrician air, Williams speaks enthusiastically about involving students from the local elementary schools, many of them first-generation Canadians, in conservation projects. “They are the future, and they care about this place. And they get their parents to care. It’s a wonderful thing to see.”

Projects like Inspiration Lakeview give Munteanu reason to be hopeful about the future of wetlands in general, since she says that conservation happens at the local level. When Inspiration Lakeview is completed, it will join Rattray Marsh in providing refuge for the birds, insects and other species of wildlife that rely on the shoreline of Southern Ontario as a stopover area on migratory routes. Mike Puddister, the restoration and stewardship coordinator for CVC, described the Lakeview site to The Toronto Star as his organization’s own “field of dreams,” saying that if they build it, wildlife will come. That will be Jim Tovey’s legacy. In Munteanu’s words, “what a cool way to honour a man who dedicated his life and career to making this world a better place for everyone.”

John Wilson is a Toronto-based freelance editor and writer. For inquiries, please contact him at editor@thecompass.ca.

Looking Beyond

The perplexities of the spiritual world are explored through John Pothiah, a well-known Peterborough psychic.

By Bianca Mazziotti | Featured image courtesy of Pixabay | April 18, 2019

We hear his footsteps coming down the stairs. Andrea Hester and I stop our conversation and look up to see her husband, John Pothiah, standing in the doorway. The 67-year-old psychic comes to about 5’ 4,” with dark skin and brown eyes that are always moving and never seem to focus on anything in particular. He appears completely drained and distant, which begs me to wonder if I am welcome. Pothiah lifts his hand so I can shake it and gives me a small smile before leading me up to the second floor of his red-brick house, nestled in the quiet suburbs of Peterborough.

As I walk up the stairs and enter a room I have only been in twice before, my mind wanders as to what my true intentions are. I’ve been lying to most people, saying I am here just for an assignment, undeniably masking the fact that I am looking for more. The truth is, I am searching for proof that the world beyond the physical exists.

I sit down in a big red leather chair, knowing I am going in with a skeptical eye, searching for the smoke and mirrors behind the magician that is Pothiah. I take a deep breath as he quickly enters the room, wondering if my questions will be answered soon.

He stands in front of me as he begins my third psychic reading with him, and I immediately notice a change from a few minutes earlier. The tired man I saw before now has transformed into what seems like an energetic child.

Pothiah begins to talk at a rapid speed, and his face lights up as he discusses  what he says have been my past lives. “You’ve been a writer in many lifetimes,” he says. “You used to be a short man, a bit plump, but you could write sonnets like crazy.”

Pothiah speaks about the spiritual world as if he has never known anything else. He says he is clairsentient, which means he is able to interpret the energy around him and make predictions based on the information he receives. He will try to convince anyone that past lives, spirit guides, ghosts and aliens exist. Pothiah speaks about these topics with such conviction that it’s easy to get caught up in his beliefs. After being around Pothiah for some time, I feel a push to try and find evidence to back up his claims. The problem is that finding such evidence is quite difficult, to understate.

Life beyond the physical is challenging to measure; however, Michael Newton, who has his doctorate in Counseling Psychology and is the Founder of the U.S. Newton Institute for Life Between Lives Hypnotherapy (TNI), claims he found a way to detect what happens after you die. Newton used a technique that has existed since the 2nd century BC, called past life regression. Past life regression involves a patient being hypnotized to remember their past lives, because it is believed we store everything in our subconscious that our soul has gone through. Usually, hypnotherapists use it to help patients discover and heal from the trauma that has been brought over from their past lives; however, Newton decided to use hypnosis to take the patient back between their past life and current life, so they can relive their last death and discover the spirit world that follows.

In Newton’s 1994 book, Journey of Souls, he explored the many case studies he conducted that support life after death. What Newton discovered was that his patients had similar experiences after they died in a previous life. The main commonalities involved a feeling of being pulled out of the body and continuing as a radiant white light, which is believed to be the soul. Newton said after his patients realized they had died, they mostly had the same response: “The most common type of reaction I hear is a relieved sigh, followed by something along the lines of, ‘Wonderful! I’m home in this beautiful place again.’” The patients say their soul feels at peace and they are happy to be rid of their human body. However, proclamations that  suggest there is life after death are difficult for most people to accept. people are beginning to accept the possibility of something beyond the physical. There is an increasing number of people turning to psychics when life becomes uncertain. In an article by IBISWorld, titled Psychic Services Industry in the US, the rise in popularity of psychics is explored: “Over the past five years, the Psychic Services industry has grown by 2.0% to reach revenue of $2bn in 2018.” It is clear psychics are more widely accepted by the public, but they haven’t always been accepted.

A Psychic From a Young Age

When John Pothiah was a young boy, society treated him harshly. In 1956, at the age of five, he moved to Tottenham, England from South Africa, and had to learn the hard way just how different he really was. It became obvious when he was enrolled in a Catholic school and started attending church regularly. He would look up at the stained-glass windows of St. Francis Catholic Church and notice the array of colours surrounding the people depicted in them. The colours he saw mirrored what he saw  every day: auras.

Pothiah describes auras as a unique formation of colours that radiate from us, based on our personality and soul. It is not something that most people can see, but Pothiah believes everyone has them, and he has been seeing auras since birth. When Pothiah told the nuns at his school, they would beat him and say he was evil. This made Pothiah suppress his connection to the spirit world and not tell anyone about his abilities for years to come.  

Aside from having to deal with the difficulties that come with navigating the spiritual world at such a young age, Pothiah also had to contend with racism. Pothiah’s family had escaped apartheid, but Britain, was not free from discrimination. Being of Indian descent, Pothiah was not treated the same as the other children at his Catholic school. Pothiah was neglected by his teachers and because of the lack of attention, he was still unable to read and write at age seven.

But what happened next seems like something out of a fairy tale. Pothiah says that, at this time, his spirit guides stepped in. These are evolved beings of the spirit world that Pothiah says taught him everything he knows. He says they taught him how to read: “They showed me how to absorb the knowledge of any book, just by holding it,” he says. This new skill catapulted Pothiah to the top of his class. “The teacher thought I was a genius. I wasn’t! My spirit guides helped me cheat.”

Pothiah excelled in school and discovered many subjects of interest, but he did not find his true passion until he moved to Peterborough, Ont., at age 21, and got a job as an aerospace machinist at Magna, Dowty ITT.

Pothiah says his spirit guides stayed with him throughout every challenge and success in his life and eventually encouraged him to become a professional psychic in his downtime. Due to the words of assurance from his spirit guides, Pothiah has been a successful, professional psychic for over 30 years, and he says it all started with just one small advertisement he placed in the Peterborough Examiner.

One of Pothiah’s repeat clients is Nicole Spradbrow, a 42-year-old massage therapist from Peterborough. She has had seven readings with Pothiah over the past 15 years. At first, she was skeptical of Pothiah’s abilities, but after his predictions rang true, she kept coming back. “He told me when people in my life were going to pass away,” she says. “He described the people and the circumstances around them and then told me approximately when they would die. Both times, his predictions were accurate.”


“He told me when people in my life were going to pass away.”

Pothiah does not usually tell clients when their loved ones will pass away, because it is far too much for most people to deal with. He will also not tell you when you will die, or if your partner is cheating on you. If you are single, however, he will say in great detail who your next partner will be and roughly when they will come into your life: “He describes them, the circumstances around them, what he sees us doing, and at the time, I don’t think it is ever going to happen, and then I meet that person and it freaks me out,” says Spradbrow. She is just one of many believers in Pothiah.

John Armitage, however, is not as convinced of Pothiah’s abilities. Armitage’s first and only reading with Pothiah took place in 2013, and the now 25-year-old executive chef at Peterborough’s Summit Terrace Luxury Senior Apartments says the psychic was wrong on multiple fronts; the first concerning his career. “He told me I would move to Toronto and become a big-time chef, and that didn’t happen.” Armitage still lives in Peterborough, where he was born and raised. Another prediction that was not accurate relates to Armitage’s love life. Pothiah told Armitage he would meet a woman named Jenn within the following four years and eventually get married. “I have not found anyone named Jenn, or even come close to marriage.”

When I confronted Pothiah about his inaccurate predictions he told me some people are more difficult to read than others. “You can see through the walls they put up but you can just see hints because they don’t want you to know everything.” Pothiah also points out that certain spirits are more challenging to connect with. “When spirit comes in it’s like trying to fine-tune a radio station for someone until you get them in clear. Sometimes spirit comes on strong and sometimes it’s weak.”

Due to inaccurate predictions and the rise in fake psychics, scientists have often tried to find evidence to prove or disprove psychic abilities, but few have gone as far as James Randi. Toronto-born Randi, a scientific skeptic and the Co-Founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI),  decided to create a series of challenges to prove the validity of psychics. This was first developed in 1964, and anyone with enough confidence was allowed to take it on. If the psychic could prove their abilities, they would win one thousand dollars. Over the years, the prize money increased, and by the termination of the challenges, in 2015, it had grown to one million dollars.

Over the course of five decades, up to a thousand people had taken Randi’s series of challenges, and none was able to pass.

With no solid evidence proving there is such a thing as psychic powers, then why do many people still spend time and money consulting with psychics?

A Huffington Post article titled Are More People Turning to Psychics for Life Advice, investigated just how expensive some psychics can be. “In 2015, Fortune profiled some of the top business psychics in the U.S., with many charging up to $10,000 a day for guidance,” the article reported.  Pothiah, on the other hand, charges $100 per hour and, at the height of his psychic career, he was seeing about 21 clients per week.

When asked what is the most common reason  people go to psychics, Pothiah says most want to find their purpose. Jeff Brown, a 57-year-old former lawyer from Toronto, turned spiritual writer, went to Pothiah for this reason, and found his one-hour psychic reading to be life-changing. “I feel like the essence of what he said to me made me feel validated and empowered. I walked out of there feeling like I am on the right path. I am here to do something intensely powerful, and I have what it takes to do it. Who gets a message like that just anywhere?”

Brown’s reading with Pothiah affected him greatly, to the point where he discussed it in his book, Soulshaping: A Journey of Self-Creation. “If the best adventures are those that turn our expectations upside down, then I was in a full-blown headstand,” he wrote. “This stranger seemed to know my story inside out. Every word he uttered resonated.”

Hearing about Brown’s experience with Pothiah only reminded me of my own reading.

What Pothiah instilled in me, that cold November night, was hope.

As I left his house, walking down the front doorsteps, hearing the fresh snow crunching under my feet, I felt a sense of calm in the knowledge that I was on the right path regarding my career. Pothiah seemed to understand me on a personal level; he fully expressed my fears and dreams, without me saying anything. My reading with him only left me with more questions about the existence of the spirit world. Comparing the many failed scientific studies indicating that psychics do not exist, with my own reading, I wondered if we are not meant to know for certain what is beyond the physical. Maybe psychics, spirit guides, past lives and ghosts are all meant to remain a mystery to us, just like death.


Bianca Mazziotti is a freelance writer. For inquiries, please contact her at bianca0830@hotmail.com.

The Counterfeit Clothing Wars

When fast fashion companies copy independently-made designs, Toronto’s independent artists find that fighting back is rarely an easy battle to win.

By Olivia Quenneville | Featured image courtesy of Pexels | April 17, 2019

During the last week of November 2018, Khloe Kardashian’s clothing brand, Good American, released a holiday collection that included a black crewneck with red lettering that read: “Santa is a woman.” When she saw it, Megan Campagnolo – a 29-year-old Toronto designer and owner of the independent brand Rosehound Apparel – was convinced Kardashian had ripped off her design. Campagnolo immediately posted photos of the copied crewneck on Rosehound’s Instagram account, comparing it to a design she released a year prior: a red crewneck with white lettering, and the exact same text. It was as a holiday edition of her “Satan is a woman” design. The post received hundreds of comments and re-posts from offended Rosehound fans, but the copycat crewneck has so far remained on Good American’s website, with no comment from Kardashian.

A number of alleged counterfeit cases involving independent artists started emerging in the media around 2011. According to social media and news coverage, it seems many Toronto artists have been increasingly involved in such matters in recent years. But due to factors such as costly litigation, Canada’s complex copyright laws, and having neither fame nor major-brand reputation to support them, independent artists are left with few, if any, practical options to protect their work. As a result, they are increasingly becoming easy targets for cunning fast fashion companies who know these artists do not have the resources to fight back if their designs are poached.

Some of the following victims have had varying degrees of success in combatting the infringements:

Prashant Gopal, a 34-year-old artist from Toronto and owner of the independent brand Yo Sick, found his original pizza slice design reproduced on a t-shirt sold by American Eagle in August 2015. After Gopal contacted the company, the shirt was removed from American Eagle’s website and store and never seen again. Although he had convinced American Eagle that it had violated his rights, Gopal received no compensation.

In 2016, Jody Edwards, who lives in St. Catharines, found her watercolour-painted feathers reproduced on a women’s shirt sold at Winners, Marshalls, and Nordstrom Rack. She contacted the companies and was told the shirts would no longer be produced. She also contacted the supplier, who was responsible for the copies and wanted to negotiate a settlement.

In 2015, Burton Snowboards released no-slip children’s mittens one year after ordering a similar product from the original Toronto designer, Anna-Maria Mountfort. In 2018, Burton stopped making the product, but would not compensate Mountfort nor admit to their mistake.

The Kardashian case was not Campagnolo’s first and only experience with counterfeiting, nor was it Gopal’s. Both artists have pursued cases of infringement with certain companies, ending in settlement. (Details about these cases are confidential.) Even though Campagnolo says she doesn’t feel threatened by counterfeiting, it is still something that makes her upset and she says wants her designs to be sold and attributed fairly. Besides, Rosehound Apparel has been her full-time job since its conception in 2013 as a fourth-year project in Ryerson’s fashion program.


“The line between imitation and blatant stealing is thinning.”

Campagnolo’s cubicle-like studio is in a two-storey, poorly-lit building near the Annex in Toronto, which is constantly humming and smells like sawdust. Partitioned by five-foot walls and painted pretty pink Pantone #196, Campagnolo’s corner of the shared room is adorned with assorted original products – enamel pins of young Leonardo DiCaprio’s face, chenille cartoon cat patches, car air fresheners – jumbled in bins and boxes. Open cardboard boxes tightly packed with “Satan is a woman” crewnecks and the latest, golden yellow “All flash no cash” design line one wall. A coir doormat that reads “Go to hell” peeks out beneath them. Campagnolo is in her element among the sounds and smells, reclined in one of the mismatched wooden chairs at a long rectangular table in the middle of the room. The cuffs of her sweater meet tiny tattoos sprinkled over her fingers, just as dark brown bangs lead to her stone blue eyes and wispy eyelashes. She embodies the theme of Rosehound’s brand – a classic, vintage character – but in the body of a millennial.

While Rosehound is very much about pastel tones, flowers, and girlhood, it has an equally gritty, rebellious side that Campagnolo also manifests. As soon as she finds someone has copied one of her designs, Campagnolo’s first reaction is to post it on social media, reclaim her design, and expose the perpetrator’s wrongdoing. This is exactly what she did in 2015 when she found out Forever 21 had copied Rosehound’s compact mirror – matte pink and heart-shaped, with the words “Not Your Baby” written in gold Candice typeface on the outside. Coincidentally, Forever 21 used the same manufacturer as Rosehound, and a contact from the factory notified Campagnolo of a similar design in production about a year after the original was released. The only noticeable alteration on the copy was the text, “Not Ur Baby,” written in a substantially similar font. When challenged, the company claimed it did not know about the copied designs. Forever 21’s version of the product was never released in stores, however, which meant Campagnolo couldn’t pursue a case against it.

The classic cliché says, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but the line between imitation and blatant stealing is thinning. Gopal says he instantly recognized the line work on American Eagle’s copy of his pizza design and had no doubt it was a replica.

Both he and Campagnolo believe their work is discovered when fast fashion companies comb through social media for marketable designs and search popular hashtags for trends. Fast fashion – which fashion news outlets The Good Trade and Fashionista believe emerged in the early 2000s – is the quick mass-production of cheap garments inspired by runway styles. Social media and the Internet allow artists to share their work and connect with fans, but it also becomes the new “runway,” making designs more accessible than ever. Campagnolo says many artists are aware of companies lurking online and have stopped using hashtags on posts because they were leading companies to their products. She and Gopal now make products that contrast mainstream trends; she doesn’t think companies, for example, will copy designs featuring cigarettes and Satan.

But ethical conduct is not always a fast fashion company’s first order of business. Copying an artist’s design is both unethical and illegal, yet some companies still do it. Chris MacDonald – an associate professor who teaches business ethics and critical thinking at Ryerson University – says though there are times when ethics and the law overlap, some companies may be relying on the cynical approach that if they can get away with something then it’s okay. Although American Eagle’s code of ethics says, “You should never make unauthorized copies of material from books, magazines…websites, products, [etc.]…” it still stole Gopal’s pizza design.

There could be many motives leading a company to infringe upon an artist’s copyright, including the consideration for profits and power over property. Companies will rely on legal and financial resources to protect themselves, which is why many cases like these are referred to as a “David and Goliath” situation. (Forever 21 and American Eagle were contacted for comment on this article but neither company responded.)

Although it would be beneficial to society and artists to take these cases to court, expose fast fashion companies’ business models, and create new case law in the process, it is rarely economically practical to take legal action. Shan Arora, an intellectual property lawyer at Shift Law in Toronto, says it is important to talk to a lawyer to get an honest assessment of the strength of your case before deciding to proceed with litigation.

Arora says a trial would typically cost no less than $100,000. Just sending a demand letter, which is usually the first step in such a case, can cost between $750 and $2,500. According to the Ellyn Business Counsel, a business litigation and arbitration firm in Toronto, elements such as the complexity of the case, volume of documents, and number of motions could stretch a case out for about two years before reaching trial. Toronto-based entertainment and IP lawyer, Raquiya Austin, says artists are often encouraged to settle for reasons such as these. For someone like Campagnolo, who runs her business by herself and relies on her products as a sole source of income, options costing large amounts of time and money are far-fetched. Gopal agrees, saying it is best to pick and choose which battles you get into. “It’s just not worth going after,” he says. “I don’t have the power to do this, I don’t have the time, I don’t have the dollars to do this, and [I don’t know] what could possibly come out of it.” Even if the designer wins, “Settlement negotiations can vary widely from a few thousand dollars to a few tens of thousands of dollars,” Arora says.

Fast fashion companies are likely also reluctant to put time and money towards litigation. Arora says the examination for discovery in a case is a major deterrent that may lead either party to settle, as documents could possibly reveal evidence of access to or actual infringement of the work in question. Negotiating a settlement with a non-disclosure agreement could protect a company’s image and provide damage control.

Unfortunately, turning to copyright law for a solution can also be an onerous task. Copyright is an area of intellectual property law that protects an author’s right to produce, copy, or perform their own literary or artistic work. It is an infringement of copyright when someone else does something the Copyright Act grants only the original owner the right to do. When fashion is involved, copyright law becomes more complicated. Copyright cannot protect ideas, only the fixed expression of ideas. For example, a drawing can be protected, but not the idea for a drawing. The Copyright Act of Canada does not recognize useful articles – anything that serves a utilitarian function – as copyrightable work, which means clothing cannot be protected. The concept drawing for the design of a shirt can be protected, but the shirt itself, as a useful article, cannot.


“You want there to be enough protection that people are incentivized to create, but you also don’t want to stifle creativity.”

Section 64 of the Copyright Act outlines exceptions related to useful articles that could be applied to these cases. For example, surface coverings, woven or knitted patterns, and graphics are all pieces that can be protected as long as they can be recognized as “art” apart from the clothing. Arora believes if an artist’s original design is on an article of clothing, the design itself could be the subject of copyright. He says, “I think that is consistent with copyright law because you’re saying the design has copyright. You’re not saying that the design of the shirt [or] the shape of the shirt is the subject of copyright. But the designon the shirt can be taken out separately.”

However, it is because of these exceptions and complications that Roger Fisher – a York University professor specializing in the areas of music copyright and the history of copyright policy – believes copyright law and its purpose can be misunderstood. He says copyright law was originally a statute that protected intellectual works, like books, created by people of the aristocracy. “It’s not really designed to be the kind of remedy for local artists. It is available, but it’s still very cumbersome.” Arora says copyright law needs to be understood as a balance of interests. The purpose of copyright is meant to protect works and promote the creation of new works. “You want there to be enough protection that people are incentivized to create, but you also don’t want to stifle creativity.”

Both Campagnolo and Gopal acknowledge their designs are inspired by pre-existing concepts – the incentives to create. Rosehound Apparel takes inspiration from vintage books while Yo Sick plays with local advertisements and anthropomorphic food. These artists are not appropriating, but are injecting their own style into existing concepts to create new works. However, American Eagle could easily argue they were inspired by Gopal’s pizza drawing when they reproduced it on a shirt and added a heart design to make it “new.” It is when everyone is asserting copyright that problems arise, Fisher says.

If an artist truly believes their original work has been copied, whether or not they own copyright over it, the cheapest and most immediate response to counterfeiting is to expose the copy. This has become many artists’ first instinct when they find their work stolen, whether it is their own or that of a fellow artist. Campagnolo says exposing copies is the easiest thing you can do to fight back and get people on the artist’s side. And it works. Some cases make it to the news, like Mountfort and Edwards’ stories, which were reported on the CBC.

Maybe what artists want most when their work is stolen is credit. “That can be enough: letting people know. Maybe they’ll support the next thing you do a little bit more,” says Gopal. If companies don’t consider where their designs are coming from, neither will their customers. Campagnolo believes people appreciate designs more when they know it is made locally and not from a machine. “I have 80,000 Instagram followers but you don’t know who I am unless you come here and see [that] it’s just me here, packing up cardboard boxes,” she says. She does this two or three times a week, by herself, in the pink cubicle.

Olivia Quenneville is a freelance writer. For inquiries, please contact her at
olivia.quenneville@gmail.com