Burn it all down

A brief overview of radical politics in Toronto

Burn it all down

Toronto has a rich history of radical politics. Over multiple generations, University of Toronto students have consistently taken the initiative as political participants and leaders. 

As early as the nineteenth century, U of T students have advocated for a more inclusive campus and improved broader community. The very first issue of The Varsity, from October 7, 1880 contains an article staunchly defending the then-contentious idea of allowing women not only entry into university, but the same access to programs of study, scholarships, and extracurricular activities as men. In that same year, students challenged conventional teaching methods, describing curricula as “too much reading too little thought.”

These early years of recorded student activity are characterized by intellectual resistance, wherein students advocated for change and independent thinking. With that said, universities were still dominated by white, privileged men, who shaped the institution in their image — to the exclusion or marginalization of other groups. Nevertheless, these primary organizing ideas manifested into student organizations designed to facilitate the extracurricular activities and advocacy that students demanded. By the early twentieth century, U of T had a student government. Students would also play a key role in creating the National Federation of Canadian University Students in 1926, the first national student union in Canada.


In the city at large, radical politics in the early twentieth century took the form of grassroots social collectives, united under causes like feminism and anarchism. Toronto also sheltered political exiles from the United States, including the influential Emma Goldman. 

Goldman was a Jewish-Russian immigrant who challenged all injustices she came across, including poor working conditions, a lack of social supports for the lower classes, and discrimination against women. This led her to join, and eventually lead, anarchist movements in Canada and the United States. Goldman lived in Toronto briefly, in a small walk-up apartment on Spadina Avenue, and died in a friend’s home on Vaughan Road in 1940. 

Goldman gave speeches calling for many things taken for granted today, including birth control, tolerance of non-heterosexual orientations, an eight-hour workday, and banning corporal punishment in schools. Her actions attracted the negative attention of police, and she soon bore the nickname “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World.”

One of Goldman’s Canadian successes was halting the extradition of Attilio Bortolotti, a key figure in Toronto’s early anarchist movement. Bortolotti, an Italian immigrant, edited anarchist journals and advocated against Benito Mussolini’s policies from abroad. He was slotted to be extradited to Italy, and many speculated that once he’d arrived, he’d be killed by the fascist government for his dissidence. Goldman engaged in campaigns to raise awareness and garner public support about Bortolotti’s plight, successfully pressuring the Canadian government to cancel his extradition. 

Despite the cataclysmic events of World War II and the resulting onset of the Cold War, radical politics in Toronto and on campus persisted. Tommy Douglas, described in a 1954 issue of The Varsity as “the only Socialist premier in Canada,” came to speak to U of T students in the fall of that year. 

Throughout the early 1960s, The Varsity made it a priority to hear from those in society who had largely been silent in mainstream media, including communists, sex workers, and those suffering from drug addiction.

In 1960, the U of T Communist Club was founded. Their first meeting was crashed by a crowd of anti-communist students shouting “Rule Britannia,” attempting to drown out the communists. Supposedly, they gained a majority in the room and began to force the club to adopt anti-communist stances, such as the endorsement of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s speech at the United Nations, which condemned the imposition of political and economic orders on new countries. The Varsity interviewed one of these communist students to get their perspective. 

U of T students also flirted with communism abroad. A mysterious letter sent to The Varsity in 1960 under a pseudonym told an account of five U of T students who joined Fidel Castro’s resistance forces in Cuba to fight against the oppressive Bautista regime. According to the account, the students spent two months wandering through Cuban jungles until they found the rebels’ camp and met Castro himself, who welcomed them into his ranks. The students participated in military activities and were active members of the resistance movement. While The Varsity’s editors at the time questioned the truthfulness of the account, it was compelling enough for them to publish it with a disclaimer, and it has since become campus legend.

And then came 1968, a pivotal year for student movements, which saw unprecedented mass protests around the world in countries including Brazil, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, France, and the United States. The University of Toronto was swept up in this current, which saw a spike in activism on campus and in the city. Students impacted by a housing crisis in Toronto built a tent city outside of Hart House to call for change. This newly-formed community began to host their own events, entertainment, and advocacy initiatives to raise awareness about their need for accessible to housing. In fact, they became so organized that they arranged for ads in The Varsity to inform students about their upcoming activities.

While most U of T students were not directly affected by the Vietnam War and the military draft lottery that led to massive student protests south of the border, they still recognized the war’s controversial nature and empathized with their American counterparts. Fall 1968 saw a large protest consisting of students and local activists in front of the American consulate in Toronto, which resulted in a number of arrests and instances of police violence, including the beating of protesters and riding horses into crowds. A number of students wrote to The Varsity, denouncing the Toronto police as pigs, while a later issue was filled with letters from students defending the police as trying their best to maintain order.


During this time, student demographics were beginning to change significantly. The first scholarship students from Africa arrived at U of T in 1960, which in the same academic year prompted a series of articles calling out racist behaviours on campus. By 1970, a Black Students Union had formed, and the Students’ Administrative Council — now known as the University of Toronto Students’ Union — decided to allocate $5,000 annually to this organization to support marginalized students. In 1969, the University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA) was established to advocate for equal rights and freedoms for students of non-heterosexual orientations. This marked the first time that such a group had been organized in Ontario or at any Canadian university. The advocacy of UTHA activists helped bring about changes in paradigms of sexuality and gender in Canada and across the world. Today, the UTHA is now known as Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People of the University of Toronto (LGBTOUT) and has a permanent space on campus for organizing a variety of events and programming for LGBTQ students.

While many Canadian protests in the 1960s had been in response to events in other countries, everything changed with the rise of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). Québec separatism exploded in the early 1970s with the election of separatist governments, mailbox bombings, and the kidnapping of politicians. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act and deployed the military in Québec to restore order. However, what is not well known is that martial law was enforced in other parts of Canada as well. Two University of Toronto students were arrested for allegedly supporting the FLQ, and their rights of habeas corpus were suspended under Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act. Despite this, many U of T students were committed to bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Several meetings about the crisis in Québec were held on campus in 1970, with the ultimate conclusion being that U of T students should take action.

After two Indigenous women from Kenora were unjustly jailed in 1970, a protest was organized at Queen’s Park by Indigenous activists from across the province, highlighting the racist behaviour of the judge who presided over the case and Indigenous peoples’ limited access to legal counsel. In 1992, an organization now known as the Indigenous Students Association was formed, dedicated to providing community for Indigenous students on campus and advocating for their needs.

Environmentalism also began to catch on in the 1970s, with articles in The Varsity outlining how corporations were lobbying against environmental protections to make more profits. Other students began to theorize how these sentiments could develop into a lasting political movement to foster policy change.


The 1980s saw the rise of neoliberalism and a more conformist ideology spread through academia, which emphasized focusing primarily on academics and spending less time on activism. U of T seems to have felt some of this as well, with activism focusing more on smaller local issues like high rent prices. It was not until the 1990s that University of Toronto students would rise up again in large numbers, this time in response to the proposed tuition increases of the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario, led by Premier Mike Harris. Roundtables were held on campus that hosted prominent speakers like former NDP Ontario Premier Bob Rae, who encouraged students to build coalitions with other community groups. 

Over 7,000 people attended a protest at Queen’s Park in 1995 to challenge the Harris government’s budget cuts to education.  As in 1968, police tried to disperse the demonstrators. A column of officers in full riot gear, 14 wide and five deep, advanced toward the protestors, beating anyone in their path with batons. Then-U of T student Allison Starkey, who attended the protest, described an incident in which a police officer cracked open the skull of a mother of four with his baton. Student leaders were influential in the protest, with Arts and Sciences Students’ Union and Graduate Students’ Union representatives and members asserting their presence among a number of students from Toronto secondary schools. The Students’ Administrative Council was criticized by students for not formally attending the protest.

The twenty-first century would in many ways see a continuation of advocacy for the social issues brought to the forefront in the twentieth century, and in some cases these issues would blend together. The 2008 financial crisis prompted the formation of a number of social movements designed to highlight economic inequalities by physically occupying areas of cities where financial power was concentrated. Occupy Toronto was one of these groups, formed in 2011, which organized a 40-day protest with activists setting up camp in St. James Park. From their encampment, the activists would go to Toronto’s financial district to engage in a series of demonstrations. The camp was largely sustained through the generosity of Toronto residents.

Other, more organic protests formed in response to the G20 summit held in Toronto in 2010, with activists challenging elite politicians and discriminatory economic policies, as well as the cost to Canadians to host the summit. Police established a temporary detention centre and arrested over 1,100 people, most of whom were later released. A report by the city’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director released two years later outlined that police tactics during the protests had breached Canadians’ constitutional rights.


It may be argued that in recent times, student engagement in advocacy activities and political participation in Canada, outside Québec, is insufficient and has little genuine influence on policy. However, students today benefit from powerful democratic student unions that, in addition to advocacy, provide services to help improve the quality of education in spite of unfavourable economic and policy trends. 

Identifying issues and working together as students necessitates communicating effectively between large numbers of students. An independent student press is crucial for highlighting important issues for students today and tomorrow. At U of T, we’re lucky to have multiple student newspapers. Similarly, extracurricular groups on campus need to work together to engage their members toward common goals. A good way to facilitate campus coalitions is to host joint events and activities where different memberships can develop friendships and exchange ideas. Cooperation between undergraduate and graduate student organizations, and even secondary and postsecondary students, is particularly valuable. 

Furthermore, students should always ensure that their own organizations, especially student unions, have fair decision-making processes. Any authoritarian practice, including excessive power in the hands of unelected officials, financial mismanagement, discrimination, lack of transparency, or interference with democratic processes, should be challenged. That way, we’ll be ready for future crises. 

As history shows, a strong framework for student advocacy exists, and can continuously be improved. The challenge lies in identifying tangible policy goals and the accompanying political tactics that would be the most successful in achieving them.  

‘Fuck,’ ‘shit,’ ‘damn’

Exploring the history behind the English language’s most commonly used swear words

‘Fuck,’ ‘shit,’ ‘damn’

Language is unquestionably one of the most beautiful gifts known to humanity.

Over time, there have been significant developments in the English language, including the evolution from Old English, to Shakespearean English, to what is now modern English.

‘Fuck,’ ‘shit,’ and ‘damn’ — sound familiar? In society today, there are certain words that are automatically deemed as inappropriate and rude to say — we call them swear words or profanity.

These are three of the most heard profanities in the English language, and when we hear them, we are quickly caught up in the intonation, implication, and context of the words.

At their core, these funny sounding words are simply letters jumbled together that are laden with baggage and history. Popular culture has even merged ‘fuck shit damn’ together, with Urban Dictionary defining the expression as, “Expressive phrase used when one four-letter swear word just isn’t enough.”

However, what do we know about the actual origins and history of these bad words? And the real question is: how did they come to be in the first place?


Out of all the English words that begin with the letter F, this is the only word that is commonly referred to as the F-word. It is a versatile word that can describe almost every emotion — pain, happiness, love, hate, and many more.

It can be used as a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. A common myth about ‘fuck’ is that, it is an acronym for “Fornication Under Command of the King”: the population was so sparse that the king would order everyone to start having sex.

Supposedly, couples in the act would hang up a sign that said ‘F.U.C.K.’ Clearly, this story is false and has nothing to do with the actual origin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘fuck’ did not come into existence until the fifteenth century.

‘Fuck,’ possibly derived from the German word ‘ficken,’ meant “to strike” in early contexts, and it frequently appeared as part of surnames with the literal meaning of hitting, rather than having any sexual connotations to it.

As time went on, ‘fuck’ took on a very different meaning. William Dunbar, a Scottish poet, wrote about a man sexually lusting for woman. Dunbar wrote: “By his feirris he would have fukkit,” suggesting the man’s desire to have sex with the woman.

Since then, ‘fuck’ has been gradually associated with sex, and over time, mass media has outright deemed this word to be inappropriate, rude, and offensive.


Similar to ‘fuck,’ ‘shit’ can also be traced back in history.

Originally, it had a technical purpose, referring specifically to diarrhea in cattle. Essentially, ‘shit’ would be used in many words that had connections to cattle.

However, as time went on, it started to have more meanings than simply diarrhea in cattle; it is now associated with all kinds of feces and often used by people to replace ‘things’ or ‘stuff.’

‘Shit’ has developed from being a technical term to socially unacceptable vocabulary. The same poet who first committed to ‘fuck,’ Dunbar also wrote “schit but wit” in order to refer to an annoying person.

Ultimately, ‘shit’ would be used to describe trash or worthless things. Nowadays, not only can ‘shit’ be used to degrade others, but it can also ironically be used to mean the best if accompanied by ‘the.’ For example, saying something is ‘the shit’ suggests that one had a great time.


Finally, ‘damn.’ The least offensive of the three ‘core’ swear words.

The origin of ‘damn’ goes back to the Old French word ‘damner,’ which means to condemn. This word was first adopted into the English language around the fourteenth century and would often be found in religious contexts; for instance, damnation referred to God’s punishment.

However, starting from the seventeenth to eighteenth century, ‘damn’ began to be used as a profanity in the context of ‘I don’t care’: ‘I don’t give a damn.’

Although it may not seem like ‘damn’ is the kind of swear word that would be taken seriously now, it was actually considered a serious profanity back in the 1700s up until about 1930; society at the time actively avoided this word because it was considered impolite and indecent.

A large portion of today’s generation rely on swearing in order to boost their self-esteem and ego. Effectively, swear words do have some sort of magical power over us — we learn and pick them up from others when we are young, even though they are taboo.

Then, as we grow older, swearing ultimately becomes a tool to emphasize points and heighten emotions. After all, what’s the first thing you typically say after you’ve stubbed your toe?

Learning the etymology of profanity, which a good amount of people are already attached to, definitely elevates one’s linguistical knowledge. And if you don’t fancy delving into the Oxford English Dictionary, I am confident that Urban Dictionary will amuse and educate you on the slightly more ‘expressive’ words that pop up in our vocabulary.

Story Nations

Documenting and digitizing Anishinaabe resistance from 120 years ago

Story Nations

In the summer of 1898, Frederick Du Vernet, an Anglican missionary from Toronto, left the city to travel west. Travelling by train, steamer, and canoe, Du Vernet journeyed to the grassy banks of the Rainy River. The long and slow moving river forms a part of the border between what is now northwestern Ontario and Minnesota.

Along the Canadian side of the river, Du Vernet met and spoke to the Anishinaabe — the region’s Indigenous residents — and recorded the encounters in his diary.

In doing so, Du Vernet documented a period of intense colonial expansion, as Canadians settled on Anishinaabe territory and illicitly claimed it as their own. Yet Du Vernet also recorded moments of Anishinaabe agency and resolve against the colonial order. Taken together, his diary unwittingly tells the stories of these people and their land on Manidoo Ziibi — the Rainy River.

The project

Du Vernet’s diary was stored for decades in a Toronto church archive. Today, it’s the focus of a collaborative project in digital storytelling called Story Nations. Students and faculty from the University of Toronto are working in close consultation with the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre of the Rainy River First Nations to develop an edition of the diary that’s annotated, online, and available in text and audio format. Many members of the team have visited the Rainy River several times and continue to receive tremendous guidance and insight from Rainy River elders and community members.

I became involved with Story Nations just over a year ago, through U of T’s digital humanities Step Forward program. At the time, I knew little about Canadian history and much less about the Rainy River. To introduce me to the topic, the program director, religion professor Pamela Klassen, and its manager and web designer, doctoral student Annie Heckman, handed me a transcription of the diary with one or two supplementary readings and asked for my thoughts.

Thrust into the foreign time and place of the diary, what immediately stood out to me were the human characters that inhabited its pages. Du Vernet jotted down the stories of Anishinaabe weighing, on a daily and individual basis, the hodgepodge of Christianity and colonialism with their own traditions and faith. Many Anishinaabe protested Du Vernet’s presence as a Christian zealot on Anishinaabe land. Taken individually, these protests often amounted to seemingly little more than a woman refusing to be photographed by Du Vernet or even the slamming of a door. But stringing these moments together generates a larger mosaic of Anishinaabe opposition to the colonial order.

Those involved in the Story Nations research project visited the present Rainy River. Photo Courtesy of Keith Garrett.

Multiple spiritual worlds

The actions of other Rainy River natives defied strict categorization. Some Anishinaabe moved fluidly between Christian and Indigenous spiritual worlds. Out of frustration, Du Vernet wrote at one point that they were “facing both ways.”

Du Vernet described such a case when writing about Kitty, a young Anishinaabe woman from the Manitoban mission of Jack Head. Kitty had been baptized but later returned to Anishinaabe spiritual practices. She became fatally ill and one night prayed with Mary Johnston, the wife of a Christian missionary. “Oh God come and take me,” she prayed. She passed away the morning after. Johnston insisted on giving Kitty a Christian burial.

Du Vernet himself became a part of the spiritual interaction he observed. Returning from a walk along the river bank, Du Vernet heard “the sound of incantation” and followed it into a tent, where an Anishinaabe ceremony was taking place. Du Vernet noticed his presence was not welcome, but he nonetheless remained transfixed by the unfolding ceremony. Even though he thought “it was all such a fraud,” Du Vernet could not help but stand with an “uncovered head and a feeling of reverence.” He was both deeply moved and viscerally repulsed by the Anishinaabe spiritual world.

Collecting and telling stories, episode by episode

I found the little stories Du Vernet recorded to be the most graspable aspect of the diary. Looking at it all together, I saw the diary not as one long narrative, but as a collection of vignettes told to Du Vernet by the people around him. I proposed organizing the digital edition around this concept. Professor Klassen approved my idea, and together we grouped the diary into 20 ‘episodes.’

Each episode works like the chapter of a book, having a title and its own self-contained narrative. The episodes vary thematically, with some, like “Photographs After the Storm,” meditative and pastoral, and with others, like “The Story of Kitty,” tragic and solemn. The episodes tend to follow the rhythm of the Rainy River itself — calm in one moment, stormy and climatic in the next.

The episodic format renders the diary more digestible to the lay reader, but it is also appropriate culturally: stories figure prominently into Anishinaabe life. Elders pass down knowledge and history through oral storytelling. As the late Anishinaabe elder Basil Johnston wrote, “It is in story, fable, legend, and myth that fundamental understandings, insights, and attitudes toward life and human conduct, character, and quality in their diverse forms are embodied and passed on.”

While Du Vernet’s diary is a decidedly colonial artifact, using Anishinaabe storytelling conventions helped ‘Indigenize’ the document and its presentation. In line with this, each episode is accompanied by an oral reading. Also, Du Vernet’s stories are presented alongside videoed stories told by today’s Rainy River Anishinaabe.


Du Vernet documented examples of Indigenous Resistance in his diary. Photo Courtesy of Keith Garrett.

Continuing Story Nations

After my initial work on Story Nations, I continued to work on the project during the summer through the University of Toronto Excellence Award, and I now work on it as a research assistant. My tasks have centred around annotating the diary. Du Vernet references a slew of historical people, places, and terms that are unfamiliar to the modern reader. My job was to research these ambiguities and provide a short annotation or sometimes a longer article explaining them.

My regional and historical knowledge developed as I wrote these annotations. My work was much like exploring an unfamiliar region. The annotations served as familiar points of geography, like a raised ridge or a strange rock, and it was my job to map out everything around them.

Many of these annotations contextualize Du Vernet’s language. Sometimes, an annotation would explain what treaty money was or where the Lake of the Woods is located. Other annotations, however, contextualize Du Vernet’s language. Throughout the diary, he used derogatory terms to describe the Anishinaabe people and their ceremonies. The annotations work to explain the forces of colonialism, racism, and Christian supremacy that underlie these words and indeed much of Canada’s history.

Decolonizing ourselves

At this stage of the project, the biggest challenge is ‘decolonizing’ how I write — a concept Professor Klassen introduced me to. By this, she meant expunging artifacts of colonial thinking that linger in historical accounts. So, for example, at the start of this article, I wrote that the Rainy River is in “what is now northwestern Ontario.” A year ago, I would have been satisfied with just Ontario, but ‘Ontario’ is merely a small segment in the human history of the land. For much longer, it has been the land of Indigenous peoples and continues to be so today.

As I continue to decolonize my writing, I realize it is not out of a duty to apply, as some might think, ‘politically correct’ terminology. Rather, it is about writing history from an objective and accurate standpoint.

Still, much of the scholarship I use to research the Rainy River area, unknowingly or not, relies on colonial conventions that sanitize the real history. For instance, in researching the Cree community of York Factory — in what is now northern Manitoba along the shores of Hudson’s Bay — many histories of the site ended when it was ‘closed’ in 1957 and its people ‘relocated.’ No further explanations were offered. As I later learned, this version of the story, with a few austere sentences, left out the far uglier reality: the government forcibly moved Cree families from their homes and onto much poorer land. Some Cree today occasionally visit the old site of York Factory and their childhood.

A similar fate awaited the Anishinaabe of the Rainy River. In 1913 and 1914, just over a decade after Du Vernet’s visit, the government illegally amalgamated the seven Anishinaabe reserves along the river into one, forcing many of the people Du Vernet met to leave their homes and heritage.

Today, the Rainy River First Nations are in a long-term process to regain their land. In 2005, they agreed to a $71 million land settlement with the Canadian government that identified land for future reserve creation. Following a court order in February 2017, the governments of Ontario and Canada, together with the Rainy River First Nations, announced the creation of some 6,000 hectares of new reserve land.

As the Rainy River Anishinaabe continue to fight for a relationship of reciprocity and respect with the Canadian government, stories remain as vital as ever — for both remembering the past and for creating a better future. Du Vernet’s diary, while steeped in flaws, is nonetheless a part of those stories.