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

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

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.

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.