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.

Inspiring Actors

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

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

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

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

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

“How is this one feeling?” he asks.

“Strong. Connected. Clear,” she says.

“What will you take away from this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nicely done. On we go,” he says.

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

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

The Van Attack: One Year Later

A year ago, I witnessed one of Toronto’s greatest tragedies, an event that altered my view of the world. This is what I saw.

By Victoria Silman | Featured images courtesy of Victoria Silman | April 23, 2019

One year ago, the unfathomable hatred of a lonely man changed my life.

For as long as I can remember, images of tragedy committed by people with political and personal agendas flashing across 24-hour news channels have littered my life—as I’m sure they have of many others. One of my most vivid memories is watching the newscast of September 11. The video of planes flying into the side of the sky-high glass windows and burning buildings drew my attention to the 14-inch television screen in our kitchen. The TV sat up on the counter, so my tiny seven-year-old self had to stretch up on my toes to see it.

Though there is a disconnect watching tragedy on TV, this is not to say that I was ever ambivalent or naïve to mass murders around the world. However, 13 months ago, on April 23, it happened to me.

At approximately 1:30 p.m., on an unseasonably warm, sunny day, a man drove a large white rental van down the sidewalks of Yonge Street. He started at Finch Avenue, heading south, and ended up just south of Sheppard Avenue, hitting every person he possibly could in the two-kilometre stretch. His primary goal was to hit women. In the hours following the tragedy, April 23 would soon become synonymous with the “Toronto Van Attack.”

The suspect identified himself as an “incel”—short-form for “involuntarily celibate,” a term coined by the occupiers of the deep, dark web. Consisting of mostly men, this culture derives their hatred towards women from their lack of success at dating them.

While I had previously heard of this underground culture (mostly in passing), I never really envisioned my life to be directly affected by it.

But every day I look out my 11-floor apartment window at Earl Bales park, I’m reminded of it. Just beyond the serenity of the evergreen forest and suburban streets lies a stretch of skyscrapers lining Yonge street where the attack occurred—a constant image of the things I saw that day.

Like 9/11, me driving north on Yonge from Sheppard on that balmy Monday is still one of my most vivid memories. You never forget pools of crimson blood and bodies strewn along a busy street.  


Following the attack, a memorial was established at Mel Lastman Square | Victoria Silman | April 29, 2018.

Amid the chaos, a horrible silence descended on the street—an aura of shock in the air clouding over the shining sunlight.

My partner and I were initially on our way to a gym near York Mills Road when we were rerouted due to deadlocked traffic heading south on Yonge just passed Sheppard. We speculated there could be construction; however, we would later learn that the suspect was being apprehended only a few metres from where we were.

We decided to head north instead to eventually make our way to York University’s gym. Having been rerouted, we made our way north on Doris, eventually turning onto Elmwood, the street leading to Mel Lastman Square.

Passing by the square, I distinctly remember a man in beige pants performing CPR on what appeared to be a woman in a dark, knee-length skirt on the ground near some planters. Next to him, a woman was doing the same for another individual whom we couldn’t see. I initially thought perhaps it was a CPR course. There seemed to be hundreds of people populating the square—perhaps there was an event going on.

It wasn’t until we drove a little more north and spotted a glass bus shelter shattered on the sidewalk, people lying on both sides of the street, and first responders speeding towards us, that we realized something terrible had happened. Newscast images from truck attacks in Nice and Barcelona must have been embedded in my subconscious, because I distinctly remember thinking to myself “only a vehicle could have caused this carnage.”

As we continued driving, time seemed to slow down as first responders began arriving in the opposite direction we were travelling. Police cars jumped curbs in an effort to get to victims quickly. One officer on foot covered the face of a victim—a man I recognized once the names of the victims were released— lying on the side of the road before he set off to help another.

It didn’t really hit me until fiery orange body bags began engulfing the street.

My recollection of the events of that day is framed by one person I spoke to: Rachel Hernandez, a young, vibrant 22-year-old, who worked at Jack Astor’s, which faces Mel Lastman Square. She witnessed the aftermath of the attack.

Initially, Hernandez noticed some commotion outside, but didn’t think it was a major emergency. She saw a person performing chest compressions on someone lying on the ground but assumed they may have had a heart attack on the sidewalk. Little did she know 10 lives were ending on the stretch of Yonge Street she walks down every day.


That was the first time I saw the body bags—we could see Mel Lastman Square from the booths on the second floor.

It wasn’t until half an hour later that she realized the situation was far more serious. “That is when we noticed there were a lot of ambulances outside the restaurant. I kept working, but guests started crowding to get near the windows and kept looking out,” she says.

“Some of our coworkers started to get near the windows, too. I thought ‘ok something is happening,’ so I went over to the windows. That was the first time I saw the body bags—we could see Mel Lastman Square from the booths on the second floor. It was extremely shocking.”

Guests at Jack Astor’s checked the news, informing Hernandez and the rest of the staff what had happened just steps from their work. “I was shocked—a van attack happened right outside our restaurant. It was really scary,” she says. In this time, officers came in looking for witness statements, bringing her into the reality of the situation.

Jack Astor’s staff had cleared out the rest of the guests, and, after providing statements to police, they gathered around the bar on the first floor to watch CP24 on the slew of televisions on the wall. Watching the story unfold, they cried together.

Some time later, as I sat at home, lying shocked and dazed with bloodshot eyes from crying for hours following the attack, Hernandez was getting ready to leave work. Police informed her and other staff at Jack Astor’s that they would require a police escort armed with an assault rifle to leave the building and head to their transportation. Stepping onto the street alongside the officer brought a range of emotions to her.

“It was so eerie—we walked out of Jack’s and the streets were completely empty. Only police officers and ambulances were there. An officer with a rifle was escorting us to a block or two down,” she says.

On April 24, the day following the attack, I went with my roommate to Mel Lastman Square to lay flowers on our way out of the city. Crime scene cleaners were just finishing spraying blood from the sidewalk when we arrived. It was cloudy and grey, and the sunny day accompanied by aura of shock from the previous day had turned into a sprinkling of rain and the pouring of grief down on the city.

On the anniversary of the tragedy, supporters laid flowers at a memorial plaque at Mel Lastman Square | Victoria Silman | April 23, 2019.

Community members laid flowers in and around the large planter at the corner of the square near Starbucks. Throughout the week, letters, candles, and bouquets began flowing past the bright red Muskoka chairs near the planter. Signs proclaiming “love for all, hatred for none” stuck out behind the overflowing flowers. Just down the street at Finch, a group of mourners 

The months following allowed for the community to gain some semblance of normality. The skies became brighter and the weather warmer, though witnesses and victims continued to deal with the mental, emotional, and physical scars from their traumas.

Sometimes when I’m walking down a street in Toronto, I catch myself holding my breath and my heartrate rising as a large white van drives by—perhaps a common reaction from others who witnessed the same horrors.

When I spoke to Hernandez in November, I asked her how the attack has affected her life in public. “Today I went to the bank right by Yonge and Finch,” she said. “Even now when I walk, I do so closer to the building instead of next to the road. I’m still kind of traumatized from it.”

It’s been exactly a year since a self-proclaimed incel ran down 26 people, killing 10, critically wounding 16 others, and altering the lives of hundreds of witnesses.  Since then, other tragedies have held my attention with unrelenting force. The Danforth shooting, and the Christchurch attack both kept me up until the early hours of the morning, recounting my emotions and experiences in witnessing the death of multiple people.

Reflecting in the late of the night, I always remember the flaw in my thinking 13 months ago. While it feels these tragedies always happen to other people, we must not forget that other person could be you.

Victoria is a freelance writer, Executive Editor, Developer for The Scribbler. For inquiries, please contact her at victoriamsilman@gmail.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.

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