Trinity College’s institutional reckoning | Part 2

College community members reflect on culture of discrimination, legacy of secret society Episkopon

Trinity College’s institutional reckoning | Part 2

College community members reflect on culture of discrimination, legacy of secret society Episkopon

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.”

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