The University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper Since 1880

Trinity College’s institutional reckoning | About

Episkopon is a quasi-secret society that was established at Trinity College in 1858. Since its inception, allegations of abuse and harassment on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation have followed.

The Varsity began this investigation after Episkopon’s alleged dissolution and multiple Trinity student leaders stepped down in the summer of 2020, citing their involvement with the group. We wanted to probe if allegations against Episkopon have continued to this day, and understand how this group has impacted notions of exclusivity and discrimination in Trinity College’s overall student community. 

Although motions of progress have been made, the future of Trinity and its students remains unclear.

If you have any tips you would like to share about our ongoing investigation into Episkopon and the culture at Trinity College, please email Stephanie Bai at [email protected] Anonymity is available depending on the situation.

Written by Joshua Chong and Hana Sharifi, Varsity Contributors

Project managed by Stephanie Bai, Features Editor

Edited by Stephanie Bai, Features Editor; Megan Brearley, Senior Copy Editor; and Maya Morriswala, Deputy Senior Copy Editor

Copy edited by Talha Chaudhry, Lead Copy Editor; Marta Anielska, Lead Copy Editor; Anita Ding; Toryanse Blanchard; Amena Ahmed; and Farheen Sikandar

Web design development by Munachi Ernest-Eze, Front-end Web Developer and Rahul Tarak, Back-end Web Developer

Visuals by Samantha Yao, Photo Editor; Dina Dong, Video Editor; and Aditi Putcha, Design Editor

Trinity College’s institutional reckoning | Part 3

Trinity College’s institutional reckoning | Part 3

This is the third part in a three part investigation by The Varsity into Episkopon and the culture of discrimination at Trinity College. 

 

SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

The Trinity College Literary Institute and Trinity College Meeting

Ilkay remembers facing a lot of discrimination at the college — perhaps the most jarring experience was an encounter with a student in blackface at a college-sanctioned Halloween party.

Though he was generally accepted, he felt that it was a conditional acceptance, perhaps due to his choice to become involved with Episkopon and the TCLI. Looking back at his time at Trinity College, Ilkay describes it as “a harrowing experience of feeling super out of place.”

“It was a very normatively white space,” he explained. “One of the things that I really found… most racist and shitty and damaging about Trin was how often people… would decide whether or not things were offensive.” When he would call something out for being racist, others would usually deny it.

Ilkay also highlights that many members of Episkopon play active roles in other areas of the college, including the TCM. Although the TCM is supposed to be a safe space for all students to voice their concerns about college governance, students from minoritized groups have come forward in interviews with The Varsity to describe their experiences with discriminatory comments, gestures, and microaggressions — many subtle, but some overt — at college governance meetings.

The 2015 Student Experience Survey revealed that students perceived the TCM as moderately inclusive but not really representative of the student body. LGBTQ+ and off-campus students, especially reported less feelings of inclusivity and representation from the TCM. Over a third of respondents felt that the TCM was not at all or not really inclusive, and 78 per cent of all students reported experiencing some form of discrimination at meetings.

There has been a growing rift between commuter students and those who live on campus. In January, at a contentious TCM meeting, members of Trinity College passed a motion to allow those not living on campus to run for head of college.

Another place where members of Episkopon play active roles is the TCLI — colloquially, “the Lit” — a satirical debating society. Historically, the TCLI organized debates on serious topics, but nowadays a typical meeting includes satirical debates poking fun at humorous topics or personal anecdotes.

Rana remembers being approached by a TCLI member in her first year and being asked to speak against her own religion. Though hopeful about participating in an engaging debate, once at the meeting, she quickly realized the upper-year students had mischaracterized the TCLI — to her, it seemed it was more about making fun of the people in attendance rather than participating in a true debate.

“I was the only woman; I was the only person of colour — the other speakers were all white men who were loud, drunk, and really aggressive,” said Rana. “I have never felt so uncomfortable in my life.”

In a statement to Trinity College members in June, the TCLI’s then-speaker Katie Bray Kingissepp acknowledged that the society partakes in “racist activities” and has a history of “discriminatory behaviors.”

“The Lit commits to changing our practices to make this more accessible space,” she continued in the statement.

Since the statement was posted, Kingissepp has stepped down from her post as speaker due to personal reasons. Deputy Speaker Nika Gottlieb assumed the role of speaker in early September and wrote to The Varsity in response to the events.

“The issues levied against the TCLI commonly reference its insularity, which beyond presenting systemic issues, also isn’t helped by the nature of amateur comedy,” Gottlieb wrote to The Varsity. “The TCLI needs a rebirth — to cultivate a brand of humour that includes everyone.”

The TCLI published a list of organizational changes, including a constitutional amendment banning hate speech during the meetings, implementing a code of conduct, and requiring debaters to send in their speeches for approval prior to each event. The group also plans to “transform toxic cultures” inherent to the organization, such as its drinking culture and the pressure on participants to use “self-othering” humour.

Ilkay describes Episkopon, the TCLI, and the TCM as organizations that “mirror” the rest of the college.

“The institution of Trinity College and the institution of the Episkopon are two entirely separate things,” Ilkay reflected. “But if you’re examining… the racist history and legacy of an institution, and all of the members of that institution… are also members of this other institution… [then] the racist history that we’re talking about is one racist history.”

“I’m really hesitant to allow [Episkopon] to become the focus of the story about institutional racism at Trinity College because the institutional racism of the Episkopon is the institutional racism of Trinity College. They’re inextricably linked. They are one and the same thing.”

The lack of transparency on Trinity College’s race-based data

To understand how to best implement systemic change, race-based data is essential. Without a full idea of how Trinity College’s student body is composed, it is difficult to determine if Trinity has an overrepresentation of white students and an underrepresentation of racialized students compared to the overall U of T student body. It also becomes impossible to ascertain if there has been any progressive improvement to the diversity of Trinity’s student population.

Though Trinity College does collect race-based data through its student experience surveys, which have been conducted twice — in 2015 and 2018 — the college has not been transparent with its findings, citing the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

In a written statement to The Varsity, however, Trinity College Provost and Vice-Chancellor Mayo Moran wrote that “Trinity College is in fact quite diverse (based on information we have from a recent student survey) and generally mirrors the student body of U of T’s St. George campus.”

Despite requests from The Varsity, Trinity College did not share which “recent student survey” it was referring to when saying that the college’s diversity “generally mirrors” that of the student body at UTSG. 

The only survey containing race-based data about Trinity that The Varsity managed to obtain was the 2015 Student Experience Survey, which was leaked to The Varsity by an anonymous source. However, its results alone cannot illuminate many additional findings about Trinity’s student population, as the survey only had a 25 per cent response rate.

Results from 2015 Trinity College survey. ADITI PUTCHA/THE VARSITY

This survey determined that, in 2015, 53 per cent of Trinity’s student body was comprised of white students. Twenty-seven per cent identified as East Asian, Southeast Asian, or Filipino, while eight per cent identified as South Asian. Six per cent identified as Arab or Middle Eastern, and three per cent identified as Latin American. Two per cent of the college’s students identified as Black.

While these results are crucial in showing the racial makeup of Trinity during that specific year, these figures stand alone in their importance, as there are no other comparable survey results that have been released and are statistically sound as a basis of comparison.

For instance, The Varsity found the results of the University of Toronto’s 2017 National Survey of Student Engagement, but this survey only measured first-year and senior-year demographics at the university, and there was a two-year gap between this survey and the 2015 Trinity College survey. This prevents any additional definite understandings about how Trinity’s racial makeup compares to the overall U of T student body.

In addition, because Trinity College has refused to release any updated race-based data, it is difficult to independently verify if the college has improved the diversity of its student body.

The administration’s response

To address the concern of discrimination at the college — specifically anti-Black discrimination — Watson founded the Trinity College Anti-Racism Collective alongside several other Black students from the college.

On June 22, the group published an open letter to the provost and college administration demanding five action items: creating a more equitable application process, establishing a scholarship and bursary for Black students, implementing mandatory anti-racism training for staff and student leaders, making physical and social spaces “more inclusive and representative of diversity,” and creating an independent committee that will hold the administration accountable for its actions.

The letter has been signed by over 1,000 students, alumni, and community members. 

Since its publication, Trinity College’s administration, along with several student groups, have come forward to address the items highlighted in the letter. According to Watson, the Anti-Racism Collective has been working constructively with the administration to implement the recommendations drafted in the letter.

Watson is optimistic that change will come through. “[The Trinity College administration has] expressed [its] intention to work toward the action plans that were outlined in the open letter,” said Watson. “I believe that these issues can be addressed. I just believe… the task force… needs to act as an independent body for which we can hold admin accountable.”

In a letter to The Varsity, Mayo did not commit to implementing all the recommendations in the letter and instead wrote, “The detailed suggestions in the open letter were also helpful and I appreciate receiving them.”

The action items drawn up by the Trinity College Anti-Racism Collective were put forward in a motion before the college’s Board of Trustees in the summer, but failed to pass in a vote.

Several items from the open letter, however, have already begun to be implemented, such as a special bursary for racialized students at the college, which, as of September, has raised over $40,000.

The college has also committed to striking a task force composed of students, alumni, staff, and faculty, with “strong representation from those who can speak to the experiences of the affected communities” that will make recommendations in an effort to ameliorate the experience for racialized students at the college.

A timeline has not yet been provided for when this task force will be established and the exact role of its members.

Overall, for some students at Trinity, the vague actions and statements by the college organizations do not go far enough. They want to see concrete change and progress in their college.

“We need apologies,” said Rana. “We need transparency and accountability. And we need administration to own up to the fact that they let this go on for a long time and that the emotional labour and the onus was on people of colour, but mainly Black students.”

SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

What will the future of Trinity’s student community look like?

In addition to the provost, several student groups have also come forward to release statements in response to the events over the summer.

The TCM has also drafted a seven-point action plan, which was released in one of Trinity College’s Facebook groups in mid-June. It includes “instituting mandatory racial bias training for student leaders” and looking “into using online voting platforms at future meetings to allow for the inclusion of students who can’t attend [regular meetings].”

Anjali Gandhi, the chair of the TCM, expressed in a written statement to The Varsity that she is “dedicated to serving underrepresented students at Trinity College.” With regard to previous surveys and anecdotes highlighting the exclusionary nature of the TCM, Gandhi wrote that she hopes to “empower voices that have been historically silenced.”

On June 3, the Trinity student heads released a statement on the Trinity College Facebook group outlining three “primary steps” that need to be taken: amplifying students’ voices, following a “call to action,” and examining potential reform in student governance.

Since the release of that statement, half of the leadership team has resigned, and the group has yet to put out a more comprehensive action plan.

“We have an action plan, but with the recent departure of 3 of the other heads, we have been reevaluating our plans to ensure that we are able to follow through with them fully given our smaller team now,” wrote the three remaining student heads in a statement to The Varsity.

The student heads cancelled a town hall event focused on exclusion at Trinity College in early June and had stifled discussions on various Facebook groups by temporarily prohibiting new posts and comments.

Despite these setbacks, they claim to remain committed to enacting reform at Trinity and addressing the issues highlighted by community members. The leaders have also been in conversation with the provost to discuss possible changes.

“We are pushing to have all five of [the] action items [in the open letter] implemented,” wrote the student heads.

They also affirm that none of the three current heads are or were affiliated with Episkopon. “We hope that as students who have never been affiliated with the organization, students will feel more comfortable approaching us about anything,” they wrote.

“We plan to be more public and vocal in our denouncement of Episkopon than what we have seen in past years, in the hopes that we set a better example for students, and cultivate a culture where Episkopon not only doesn’t exist, but is not commended at all.”

Elections to replace the student heads and TCM executives who stepped down occurred in early October.

Ingrid Cui and Mariam Mahboob both ran for woman head of college on platforms that addressed concerns surrounding elitism and equity. Cui was elected with 53.57 per cent of the vote on the first ballot. Yiming (Ben) Xu ran unopposed on a platform that included increasing diverse participation in Trinity affairs, and was elected as man head of college.

All three candidates were racialized and explicitly wrote in their candidate statements that they were never affiliated with Episkopon and never will be. Cui and Xu notably replace two white heads who resigned in the summer.

Given these developments, Trinity College seems to be moving in a different direction. However, some uncertainties remain, such as how the anti-racism task force will deliver on bringing about institutional change or how the TCM will implement its action plan.

For Watson, although she is hopeful and optimistic about Trinity College moving ahead, she does have a word of caution for the college community as it paves a way forward.

“Any diversity efforts that you have will die… without equal action that is pointed to making sure that all students feel safe in the environment and making sure that they feel that their experiences and their views and their opinions are valued and appreciated by their peers and… the administration,” Watson said.

“Diversity and inclusion are not mutually exclusive.”

*Names have been changed out of fear of reprisal.

Trinity College’s institutional reckoning | Part 2

Trinity College’s institutional reckoning | Part 2

This is the second part in a three part investigation by The Varsity into Episkopon and the culture of discrimination at Trinity College. 

Content warning: this article contains discussions of sexual violence.

The readings

Some receive an innocuous card under their dorm room door. Others are invited by their orientation leader to an “ice cream social.” No matter the method of recruitment, the Episkopon described to incoming students during the first weeks of school is far different from the real Episkopon.

Before researching the history of the quasi-secret society — now officially disassociated from Trinity College — Kalisch believed Episkopon’s events, or readings, were an exciting opportunity after receiving an invitation card.

Kalisch recalls thinking “This might be a really good way to make friends, maybe I don’t know what this is but I want to be involved. I want to make sure that I’m getting to know people.”

Then, after finding out about the group’s practices, she couldn’t bring herself to go. “I realized Episkopon’s historical roots of inequality, racism, and misogyny,” she said, “and I started looking into more stories about serious, serious harm that they had caused.”

Those who are oblivious to Episkopon’s activities do not see the harm in joining. Many attend the readings due to peer pressure, in the same way that many second-year students officially join the society through the influence of their peers.

First-year students would gather together on a fall evening at the Philosopher’s Walk — just off college property — perhaps expecting a night of revelry. But for some students, the reality was far different from the night they expected.

“We were all made to line up in a single file,” said Eve*. “And we weren’t allowed to talk — we were told to shut up.”

Then, Episkopon members corralled first-year students — many confused and unaware of the nature of the event — onto the subway, toward St. Clair West station.

“I felt targeted,” said Eve, who is a racialized individual and, as a first-year, was shamed during the reading by upper-year Episkopon members whom they did not know.

Sarah Rana, a third-year student at Trinity College, felt similar feelings of discomfort and shame while attending that first reading. Rana, who is also racialized, said that “I had to sit there while people were cheering [the Episkopon members] on” as they mocked her.

 

SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

The initiation process

In addition to readings, Episkopon also holds more exclusive events called ‘At-Homes,’ where members of the society will handpick first-year students by slipping invitations under their residence doors. They select students who they believe have the potential to be prominent parts of “Social Trin” — a common term used to identify Trinity College’s most socially active and popular students — who are then more likely to become members of Episkopon.

This potential might be demonstrated by their attendance at parties at the college, how well they buy into Trinity College’s drinking culture, or their knack for humour — since their main role in Episkopon would be to write jokes for the readings.

As indicated by the name, At-Homes are held at someone’s home, and filled with drinking and hazing activities to celebrate potential new members. After the event, the students are one step closer to becoming official members.

However, Reedman recalls that the most traumatizing event of her time at Episkopon was the initiation to officially become a member of the group.

In her year, potential recruits were selected through a note or phone call. They were then told to drink alcohol and blindfold themselves on the steps of Old City Hall. Soon after, they were put inside a van, where Reedman remembers people physically molesting her while blindfolded — grabbing parts of her body, including her breasts, and making jokes.

“They were making jokes about how they were going to take us to the frat house that is loosely associated with Trinity called Kappa Alpha and let the guys there rape us,” she said. “It was really fucked up.”

She and the other recruits were taken to a member’s home, where they participated in hazing activities while blindfolded, with other members laughing at them. Eventually, they were given a golden key — the official symbol given to new Episkopon members who have gone through the initiation process.

The process of initiation for the men’s branch of Episkopon is different. According to Ilkay, the scribe would decide which students would receive invitations to the initiation, which were delivered through letters or in person. When he was initiated, he was taken to Sir Winston Churchill Park, and from there, students were blindfolded and driven to Cherry Beach.

Episkopon’s continued ability to thrive and attract new members, despite it being technically shut out by the college’s administration, can partially be attributed to the strength and support of its alumni network.

Episkopon alumni regularly attend the final reading of the year, according to Reedman and Ilkay. Photos with captions on Episkopon’s old website from the early 2000s, retrieved by The Varsity through an internet archive database, show former Episkopon members who graduated more than two decades prior attending gatherings.

Additionally, according to Reedman and Ilkay, men alumni members would — on occasion — provide funding to current members.

A pervasive culture that spans Trinity College

Though its activities are problematic, Episkopon is not the cause of racism and discrimination at Trinity College; rather, it is one of the many facets through which it is expressed. The territory of Social Trin extends farther than Episkopon.

A significant number of students who occupy positions in Episkopon have been active in many of the established clubs and organizations at Trinity College, particularly the Trinity College Literary Institute (TCLI) and the Trinity College Meeting (TCM).

Members of Social Trin are more likely to be involved with clubs and societies, hold many of the coveted leadership positions on boards and student government, and are generally the most recognized students of the college.

Though Episkopon members comprise fewer than five per cent of the college’s overall population, they make up a significant proportion of the student leadership team. Two of the six student heads for the 2020–2021 school year have publicly acknowledged their past affiliations with Episkopon following calls from members of the college and resigned in June. This came during the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement as a way to also make room for racialized voices.

Two of the five executives who serve on the TCM, the college’s direct democracy council, have also publicly admitted to having former ties to the society. The two executives announced on September 21 that they would be stepping down.

The involvement of multiple Episkopon members in several high profile leadership positions at the college has been a point of contention among several students and has put Trinity College’s election policy into question.

Currently, the policy stands that students who are members of Episkopon are allowed to run as student heads as long as they disclose their intended status within Episkopon for the upcoming school year.

Since members of Social Trin have a greater chance of making friends and being voted into leadership positions, many first-year students feel pressured to join Episkopon in order to be included in the inner circle of Social Trin.

“People wanted me to join this secret society, and so I felt really included and flattered and popular,” Reedman admitted. “Which are all vain things, of course, looking back, but I so wanted to be a part of it.”

Reedman emphasized that many new students joined Episkopon because they believed that the membership would benefit them, especially with their electability to various executive positions within the college. Clubs will often be divided into different tiers of leadership, with entry-level executive positions that students run for in second-year acting as launching pads into higher-level president and head positions.

“I think a lot of people, when they’re part of Pon, it makes it easier for them to get elected to those kind of middle positions that you have in your second year or third year, which makes it more likely for them to be a [student] head afterward,” she said. “Because they know people in older years who can vouch for them, vote for them — that kind of thing.”

The social factor

Students who are unable or unwilling to join Social Trin may feel excluded from clubs and events.

In the college’s 2015 Student Experience Survey, which focused on the activities and experiences of students at the college and highlighted issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion, 29 per cent of students said that the main factor that influenced their decision to not run for a TCM position was because they felt unwelcomed.

This Student Experience Survey is conducted by the college every four years. The most recent one was published in 2018, but The Varsity did not have access to the demographics from that survey. The college cited the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The responses from the 2015 survey follow two main themes: either students said that they did not feel popular enough to win or that the environment of the meetings was unwelcoming.

One respondent wrote, “Only the ‘Social Trin’ clique of people ever get elected, so it’s not even worth it to try out, since there is basically zero chance of getting elected.”

“The atmosphere of the college is not conducive to running for these positions unless you are a part of an exclusive group of people,” wrote another student. “If you do not subscribe to their beliefs, you are shut out.”

One student wrote simply that the TCM is not a welcoming environment: “In this arena, politics get extremely personal, and I have seen my friends scapegoated multiple times for motions they spoke up against that ended up failing.”

The rationale some students provided for the decision not to run for student head was similar. Many felt that they needed to be part of a certain clique to apply.

One respondent wrote, “I haven’t ever been interested in these positions but the general understanding among my peers is that election to these positions is highly determined by Trinity networks/friends/cliques/Episkopon membership.”

Watson remarked that she felt saddened and uncomfortable when she found out that many Episkopon members hold positions of power at the college.

“It’s very disheartening,” she admitted. “Because Episkopon is a homophobic, anti-Indigenous, anti-Black group, it would definitely make students feel uncomfortable interacting with any of the student leaders, more so if they know exactly who it is [that is a part of the group]. As a student leader, every student should feel comfortable with approaching you if they have a problem.”

Lauren* began to feel less safe speaking up to the leaders around them as they spent more time at the college. After reflecting, they said, “I don’t feel very safe speaking up at TCM. I don’t feel very safe going to this leader and saying, ‘Hey, this is a change that we should have.’  ”

“It’s really hard, knowing that these people are our leaders, because they’re supposed to represent all of us: commuters, residents, people of colour, white students. But they clearly have a certain group of people they keep in mind.”

Although there is currently no rule in place that prevents Episkopon members from occupying positions of leadership, there is certainly pressure — now more than ever — for these particular students to apologize and leave Episkopon or forfeit their leadership positions entirely.

When Reedman decided to pursue a leadership position in her third year, she did not face any retribution for “dropping the key” and leaving the group. In fact, she found it easy to make the decision to leave the society.

Keeping her Episkopon membership would have meant that she would have needed to secretly collect information and gossip from the very students she was meant to represent as a student head — a position that Reedman did not want to be put in.

“I didn’t want to be part of this organization that was spying on people while I had a role like that [as student head],” she said of her decision to leave Episkopon. “There were a lot of people who really thought that no one should be a head if they’re also a part of Pon.”

Watson agreed that the pressure on those in Episkopon to reconsider their positions of power is necessary.

“If the person is not willing to disassociate themselves with Episkopon, then they should resign, because having that type of energy on campus will not make for a very healthy environment,” she said. “As a student leader, you have to understand that a lot of the actions that you do take, people do notice, and people do look up to you as well.”

Trinity College’s institutional reckoning | Part 1

Trinity College’s institutional reckoning | Part 1

This is the first part in a three part investigation by The Varsity into Episkopon and the culture of discrimination at Trinity College. 

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

Shantel Watson wasn’t sure what was going on when a fellow Trinity College student confronted her for using a communal residence washroom. Watson, then in first year, was stepping out of a shower one morning when the white woman student began to question Watson, as if she was interrogating her for not asking permission to use the shared washroom beforehand. 

“It seemed she was trying to police the way I was using the facilities,” Watson said in an interview with The Varsity. Upset over that encounter, Watson remembers leaving the washroom and feeling that someone was watching her. 

When she turned around, she noticed the same woman student had followed her out of the washroom and was staring her down as she walked down the narrow hallways of Trinity College. “We locked eyes,” Watson recalled, “and then she jumped back into the washroom.”

Watson left that interaction confused. “I was just thinking why would she think I was [there] to hurt anyone or anything,” she said. 

Then the meaning behind the encounter began to sink in. 

Beyond microaggressions from teachers or strangers when she was younger, Watson had never experienced anything of that magnitude. She called the experience an “eyeopener.”

Watson, now a third-year student at the University of Toronto, is one of a handful of Black students at Trinity College. According to Trinity College’s 2015 Student Experience Survey, Black students comprise approximately two percent of Trinity’s student body population.

Watson has experienced several other racist encounters at the college since that incident. This past summer, she decided to speak up by writing an op-ed for The Varsity with two fellow Black students that highlighted the impact and extent of anti-Black racism at Trinity College. 

In doing this, Watson joins an increasingly large chorus of students and alumni who are coming forward with personal stories of discrimination and exclusion at the predominantly white college, which has a community that some Trinity College students characterize as elitist. 

These events led The Varsity to question the larger overall climate of Trinity College and how it is perpetuated at an institutional level.

SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

An institutional reckoning amidst a global movement

Discussions surrounding these issues at Trinity College became heightened this spring following the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. As corporations, organizations, and communities across Canada and around the world began to reckon with and examine systems of racism and discrimination embedded within their social structures, so too did the members of Trinity College. 

One June 1, the Trinity College Multicultural Society (TCMS) published a statement on its Facebook page in response to the deaths caused by police brutality and anti-Black racism. The TCMS, created in 2018, aims to “be a space for minority students to seek comfort and support when navigating our educational institutions, which are plagued with systemic racism.”

In the 2023 Facebook group, Black TCMS leaders responded to the statement by coming forward with personal experiences of anti-Black treatment they have received and criticism toward Trinity student leadership’s lack of action towards combating anti-Black racism.

Much of the conversation among Trinity College members in several Facebook groups centred around personal experiences with discrimination at the college or with Episkopon, a quasi-secret society with a history of discriminatory practices with which several Trinity College students are associated — including multiple students in leadership positions. 

One of the catalysts that precipitated the vigorous discussions at Trinity College were a series of Facebook posts made in early June by current Trinity College students detailing incidents of racism.  

Shortly thereafter, Micah Kalisch, a second-year student, brought the issue of Episkopon to a wider audience by posting a warning in the “Trinity College (UofT) Class of 2024” Facebook group, informing incoming first-year students about Episkopon’s discriminatory nature and actions. 

“The group is known for being inherently racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, [and] transphobic,” Kalisch wrote in the post. She went on to share that her message is part of an important movement of dismantling systems within the college that perpetuate anti-Black racism. 

The Varsity has tried reaching out to recent members of both the recently dissolved men’s and women’s branches of Episkopon for comment about these allegations of discrimination. They have yet to respond. 

“I chose to make that post in the incoming students’ page because when I was a new student, I had never heard of [Episkopon],” Kalisch said in an interview with The Varsity. “It’s important for people to know what this group represents, what this group perpetuates, and what it’s founded on.”

Kalisch’s post — along with other posts about discrimination at the college — started a chain of events that lasted well into the summer and resulted in the resignation of multiple student leaders; an open letter to the college’s administration demanding action on discrimination, which was signed by over 1000 individuals; and a pledge by several student leaders and college administrators to examine and reform multiple systems within the college. 

According to a statement by a Trinity College spokesperson in August 2020, they claimed that to their understanding, both the men’s and women’s branches of Episkopon have dissolved. Only the women’s branch has publicly announced their dissolution in June 2020, but The Varsity has been unable to contact the male branch to confirm their dissolution. 

These events have been the subject of a three-month long investigation by The Varsity into Episkopon and the culture at Trinity College, including interviews with over a dozen college students, alumni, and administration, along with the analyses of hundreds of pages of documents dating back to the late 19th century. 

The findings paint a disturbing picture of multiple forms of institutional discrimination, including racism, elitism, and exclusion, that go beyond the bubble of Episkopon and pervade multiple facets of college and student life. The effects of this discrimination have been perpetuated by the inaction of college administrators and student leaders — a leadership team that, for decades, has had overlapping spheres of influence with members of Episkopon.   

Episkopon’s history 

For much of its history, Episkopon — or “Pon,” as it has been dubbed by students — was inextricably linked with Trinity College. Established in 1858, the society was described in the 1896 edition of the Trinity University Year Book as a “weapon of righteous indignation, humorous unbraiding or scornful reproval, just and meet.” 

Episkopon was, and still is, most well known for its readings — evening gatherings where Episkopon members would recite gossip, often in the form of pointed insults or jokes, aimed at certain members of the community. The jokes and minutes from each reading would be recorded in decorated tomes, most of which are stored in Episkopon’s archives.

Episkopon’s activities, however, did not go unnoticed by other students and the college’s administration, who were often critical of the readings’ content. Several attempts were made to discontinue the activities of the society throughout the first century of its existence, most notably in the 1870s. 

First-years in the college pushed back against Episkopon’s repeated criticism of certain students and the derision of their character, leading to the group’s temporary dissolution from 1875 to 1879. Episkopon’s readings were also halted from 1887 to 1888 and once again from 1945 to 1946. 

Despite these setbacks, Episkopon continued to thrive throughout the latter half of the 20th century, maintaining its same raison d’être of ridiculing the flaws of other students in the form of jest and insults, all while continuing to receive funding from the Trinity student council as a recognized society. 

Episkopon attracted individuals who went on to be recognized members of Canadian society, including luminaries such as former Chief Director of Education of Ontario John G. Althouse, former politician and current Trinity College Chancellor Bill Graham, and former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson.

It wasn’t until 1992 when Trinity College formally disassociated with Episkopon due to allegations that the group harassed students on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation. 

This was preceded by a string of serious incidents from the mid-1980s to early-1990s, and students threatened a lawsuit against the university if Trinity College failed to disassociate from Episkopon. 

A year prior to the college severing all official ties with the group, a student targeted by Episkopon threatened to take their own life, while another student who was critical of the society had a bucket of human feces and urine dumped in their room, as was reported by The Varsity in 1992. 

In spite of these incidents, there was considerable pushback from members of Trinity College — including students in leadership positions — against Episkopon’s removal from the college.

 Episkopon today

Today, Episkopon remains officially disassociated with the college. Yet, since 2017, there has been a steady presence of several Episkopon members serving as elected officials for Trinity College each year. In addition, the three yearly readings — which are typically held at a variety of locations throughout the city, including Trinity Bellwoods Park — are well attended by non-members such as first-year students at Trinity College and, at times, alumni.

The most distinctive structural aspect of Episkopon is its gendered nature, with the organization being split into two groups — that of men students, “Man-pon,” and that of women students, “Fem-pon.” A scribe functions as the head of each of these two branches, and each head is supported by two senior editors. Every other member who is initiated into the society is an editor.

Victoria Reedman, an alum of Trinity College and a former Episkopon member, recalls her responsibilities as a member of Episkopon with aversion. 

“It’s very Mean Girls,” she said. “When I was a part of the organization, a lot of it made me really uncomfortable. I didn’t like writing the jokes, and I wasn’t very good at it. And I especially didn’t like writing jokes about other people.”

Throughout the year, editors are responsible for updating a list, known among members as the “Shit List,” on a running Google Doc. It is part of their role to keep an eye and ear out for gossip circulating through the college and any drama that might be worth broadcasting at the readings. 

Joke writing is also done in a gendered manner. Women editors are responsible for writing jokes about women members of the college, while men editors are responsible for writing jokes about men members. 

Students may request not to be mentioned in the readings. But rather than an opt-in process, students must approach an Episkopon member in order to opt out. And sometimes, even this request is denied.

Readings cover a wide range of topics and have even been known to target particular individuals for their sexual history, according to two former members. Scribes would denigrate women students for being virgins or would call them out for being too sexually active. In addition, the men’s branch of Episkopon would often craft sexist jokes that conveyed that women’s jokes are inferior to men’s. 

Andrew Ilkay, a Black Trinity alum and a former member of Episkopon, highlights how fellow members would don a “progressive” mask in their everyday lives yet act far differently behind closed doors at Episkopon gatherings. “There was a general fake progressiveness that we kind of felt we embodied,” he shared. “But in practice, we probably didn’t embody it.”

Trinity College’s Episkopon Policy has a negligible impact

Since 2010, all incoming students are made to sign Trinity College’s Episkopon Policy. By signing it, students agree to refrain from organizing, participating, or publicizing any Episkopon-related events on college property or in connection with college events, and obtaining funding from Trinity College to support Episkopon events. 

However, The Varsity’s investigation reveals that few students pay much attention to the beginning of year forms that they are supposed to sign, including the Episkopon Policy. In addition, the rules are rarely enforced and often broken. 

For many first-years, their first introduction to Episkopon is through interactions with upper-year students. New students may hear about it during frosh week at the start of the school year, when orientation leaders affiliated with Episkopon would coax unsuspecting first-year students to attend the first reading by advertising it as a college-sanctioned ‘ice cream social.’ 

Episkopon’s open readings are also promoted over Facebook and informally spread through word of mouth throughout the college. Others may receive an innocuous card under their residence dorm door, telling them to meet at a particular location off Trinity College property. 

Perhaps the most brazen form of recruitment, however, is when Episkopon members, dressed in their distinctive black robes and holding candles, promote readings at the end of college-sanctioned frosh activities — “purposefully fitted into the schedule” by the student heads, according to former Student Head David Ingalls in a Facebook post to a private group for Trinity College students. Ingalls resigned this past summer. 

The Varsity has also tried reaching out to recent members of both the men’s and women’s branches of Episkopon for comment on the allegations that they continued to promote their group against Trinity policy, but they have not responded. 

For the 2020 orientation event, there were several students affiliated with Episkopon who were sitting on the orientation planning committee or going to be student leaders for the weeklong event. 

In a letter obtained by The Varsity addressed by the Dean of Students Kristen Moore to the orientation week leaders, the college requested students with prior involvement with Episkopon to step down from their orientation week position in early July. 

“It would be inconsistent with College policy for us to permit students who have had involvement with Episkopon to hold such a crucial role in welcoming and introducing our new students to life at the College,” the letter read. “As such, we are requesting that you reflect inward, and make an assessment as to whether or not you have a current or former affiliation with Episkopon.”

Since the resignations were based on an honour system, it is unknown if there are currently any members of the orientation week team that hold current or former affiliations with Episkopon.

When Watson was in her first year, she and her friends were approached by a man frosh leader, who openly declared his Episkopon membership before trying to dispel the negative commentary surrounding the society. “To speak about Episkopon in that manner was definitely inappropriate,” she reflected. “His response should have been that Trinity does not promote or associate itself with Episkopon.”

No matter the method of recruitment, for many first-year students, the Episkopon described to them during the first weeks of school is far different from the real Episkopon. The Varsity investigated the past and present allegations against this group that is both shrouded in misinformation and secrecy, and occupies a major space of the social scene for Trinity College students.