The history of the future: how science fiction has evolved across time

The visionary genre has grown from humble beginnings

The history of the future: how science fiction has evolved across time

Science fiction is worthy of praise. After all, who would have thought that two words with such contrary definitions could be combined to form such a powerful and popular genre?

Science investigates reality through physical and natural observations, experiments, and conceptual theories, whereas fiction writing fabricates events and characters from the imaginary through creative mediums. Science fiction somehow manages to reconcile these two endeavours.

In an interview with The Varsity, Dr. Bart Testa, an associate professor at U of T’s Cinema Studies Institute, explained that it is a “fantasy literature that reduces its fantasy on the basis of speculation with respect to the cosmos or technology.”

When and how did science fiction begin?

“Science fiction began, as we know it, in the nineteenth century during the industrial and technical expansion and innovation,” Testa said. The industrial revolution, which began in the late eighteenth century and continued through the nineteenth century, describes the period when the manufacturing process shifted from the home to the factory.

This shift had increased production scales, product varieties, and the standard of living. However, we cannot have all these ups without some downs, right? Industrialization led to labour-intensive jobs in factories, which in turn frequently resulted in poor working conditions for their employees.

Testa mentioned that “a lot of science fiction writers like to refer back to [the industrial revolution]. They saw the industrial world flourish around them and started to fantasize and speculate about what might happen, and sometimes, these fantasies became real.”

How practical is reading science fiction?

According to Testa, science fiction has always “had a big audience,” and has been very popular among people studying science.

“Perhaps science fiction went into their imaginations — what was possible and what was impossible to do,” Testa continued. He explained that science fiction has helped mould three generations of technicians and scientists. 

Consider what Testa mentioned — it’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? The fact that a mere genre of literature has had such a huge impact on the path taken by scientists — to reach the summit of technical advances in the present age — seems unbelievable.

But how did science fiction manage to do so? It cleverly masks real-world issues — be it environmental, ethical, or societal — as problems affecting a different reality. This allows readers to engage with these issues from a new viewpoint, which often results in a deeper understanding of the author’s conception of these challenges. 

What, if any, are the limitations of this genre?

From its humble beginnings in inexpensive pulp magazines, science fiction authors had to abide by strict limitations.

“The editors of these magazines, by all records, were dictatorial,” said Testa. “They told writers things they should and must say and shouldn’t and must not do.”

In fact, science fiction was mostly centred around science, big governments, and technology because those editors were usually pro-science, pro-big governments, or pro-military technology, according to Testa.

However, science fiction writers did not allow this tyranny to continue, rebelling against the genre’s norms along the way.

An iconic figure was Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer and biochemistry professor at Boston University. According to Testa, Asimov was a member of a rebellious science fiction group who believed that pulp magazine editors were too narrow-minded to be invested in literature.

The golden age of science fiction directly followed the publishing of science fiction in paperback. Testa described this age as “the period when limits were, to some degree, removed.”

The golden age mainly focused on broadening the scientific aspect of writing. “Much of what we pick from science fiction comes from that golden period,” said Testa.

Now, moving on from the golden age, science fiction experienced another period of border expansion — one with a decidedly less optimistic take on the future.

Testa exemplified this by referring to a novel written by J. G. Ballard called The Drowned World, which he described as “an apocalyptic novel where the world is covered largely in water.”

Three inventions inspired by science fiction. HANNAH BOONSTRA/THE VARSITY

Science fiction in perspective

All in all, it is clear that science fiction, a genre so impactful on scientists and the advances of the modern world, did not develop in the spur of the moment.

The genre felt various forms of pressure, yet it managed to not only survive them, but also to overcome the obstacles thrown its way. The diligence of writers and readers who stood by this genre and won its freedom allowed them to present the world the true worth of science fiction.

While Notre Dame burned

A reflection on internalized colonialism

While Notre Dame burned

Lately, I have been on a quest to consume more art by people of colour. I have also been listening to a lot of French music and fangirling over Shawn Mendes. Am I a hypocrite? But I feel guilty about it. Is that worse?

On April 15, the Notre Dame Cathedral burned and I was moved to guilty tears. For the sake of arts and literature, and not religion — or so I told myself — I welled up. For the sake of Quasimodo’s haven and the beautiful architecture. At least, that was my justification. I actively pursued the news minutes after the story first broke. I began to read hourly updates. “Notre Dame may not be saved.” People sung hymns on their knees. Then I turned to Twitter. After my tears had subsided, they were replaced by a wandering thought: what kind of tragedy is this? Some people on Twitter said that this was a religious tragedy, but I’m not so sure.

I read a tweet that said, “A 23-year-old white man destroyed three Black churches in Louisiana last week. The 800-year-old Keriya Aitika mosque in China’s Xinjiang province was also razed to the ground by the Chinese [government], the latest in a string of historic mosques destroyed. Pray for these histories, too.” I liked the tweet, but with a shadow of guilt. I do not follow the news of mosque razings, because they are not actively present in the media. I have always been wary of the Eurocentrism of the media, and I have felt uncomfortable when terror attacks in France made Muslims around the world akin to folk devils. I have chastised the way that the mainstream media covers issues in Palestine or Pakistan with very little nuance and inspection. And still, the destruction of multiple important Black churches has barely been discussed in the way that the burning of this French Catholic institution has.

I’ve been moved to shakes and tears over Black and Brown and European deaths. The difference might be anger. I am angry when Black and Brown people are killed. When Muslims are killed, I feel fiercely protective of my Muslim family. I do not need to make classifications, but I make them because even death has become a politicized deed. I must critique and analyze death in the same way that I would with news or literature.

To explain my sadness about Notre Dame, I start by thinking that Paris has always been among my dream vacation destinations. I have never travelled outside of my home country, Canada, except for a few days in New York, but I used to Google the street views of Rome and Paris during the summer and lust over the visual spaces of Call Me By Your Name. Notre Dame has become another place that I will never get to go. Everyday things are changing, and Paris itself is not the same city that I once dreamed about. But it is there, in the songs, in the literature, in the art, new and old. Images of Paris permeate culture and media institutions across the globe. The idea that there was something out there that was always waiting for me was a comfort, but it is one I now have to release. I always assumed the stagnancy of things, places, and people. This time it burnt down. For me, this was an awakening.

It’s somehow poetic to say that “Notre Dame is burning.” It has a magic poignancy that the Christchurch headlines did not have. On a macro-level, everything about Christchurch on the news was ugly. But then there was the vigil held in our city of Toronto, in our Nathan Phillips Square. As soon as the presider started reading the introductory du’a, I cried. That is another place I will never get to go. I don’t think I have ever been a good Muslim. I do not pray five times a day and I do not feel legitimized by other members of the Muslim community. But I still feel the effects of Islamophobia. I still feel angry when it touches my life.

In different ways, Islam and Christianity have wounded me. Christianity underwrites most public television, either explicitly or implicitly, which frustrates me. The frequent villainization of Islam injures me, but somehow I feel conflicted. I wonder if it’s not my right to grieve, not my right to share this pain. But I am mourning today for that feeling of being left behind. This, I think, is not a political issue. But that irks me still, that I would brush away politics in favour of emotions. Was my crying at the vigil for Christchurch political? It has to be.

White Parisians did not drop to their knees and pray whenever Muslims were attacked in their country. France has a terrible track record when it comes to its treatment of Islam and forced religious assimilation; we all know this. We have given them more empathy than they have given us. The Catholic struggle has been privileged over any other religion’s and the white struggle over any other race’s or people’s; we all know this. We have given them more attention than they have given us. This empathy and attention needs to redirected. That does not mean that marginalized communities shouldn’t attend to the feelings of Parisians and empathize with their situation. It just means that we need to acknowledge that our communities have suffered deeper losses, both historically and contemporarily. People may equate marginalized communities’ reactions to Notre Dame as inhumane or unfeeling, but it is simply a reaction to a system of oppression that has left people of colour in the dark. These are valid emotions.

The main structure of Notre Dame has been saved while most of the tangible history and beautiful architecture has been burned to ashes. The collective pain surrounding this event serves mainly as an expression of the loss of European history and a symbol of Catholicism. Of course I feel for the pain of the French people and Catholics all over the world. But my eyes remain dry because European history is an erasure of Indigenous and non-European cultures as well as the birth of colonial and neocolonial forces that impact our lives everyday. That can never be burned away. How do I reconcile this with my almost-tears? Do I choose not to feel anything? Or maybe the indicator is my lack of actual crying. My sobbing for the attacks on Muslims and people of colour is another indicator. The difference between these is mourning a story and mourning a flesh wound.

And so what if I am always checking myself? Checking myself is a small way of decolonizing my consumption. My tears are political, even if I don’t think they are, and even if they are in private. My emotions are an expression of my social learning. The magic of Paris is a construct perpetuated by the media, but it manifested itself in my soul, so it has splintered my heart slightly. But my heart is not broken.

To be on the brink of tears for a social emblem that I do not actually relate to is a strange sensation. I have started to embrace the guilt, to take care of it, and to understand why my sadness feels so unnatural. That pang of guilt is a way of moving toward deconstructing the deification of white colonial structures, both physical and cultural.

How U of T could adjust to provincial tuition cuts

Ford government’s 10 per cent domestic tuition slash could prompt university to borrow from reserves, make cuts

How U of T could adjust to provincial tuition cuts

U of T is set to decrease its domestic tuition fees in 2019–2020 by 10 per cent, courtesy of the provincial government’s mandatory reductions, announced January 17. Tuition will then remain frozen for the 2020–2021 years. According to the Toronto Star, the plan is expected to eliminate $360 million from Ontario universities’ operating budgets.

The province’s previous tuition framework, effective since 2013, enforced an overall annual three per cent cap on undergraduate Arts & Science domestic tuition fee increases at U of T. Between the 2013–2014 and 2018–2019 academic years, U of T has increased gross domestic tuition by an average of 2.96 per cent year-on-year.

Based on this trend, U of T would likely have set tuition for domestic undergraduate Arts & Science students in 2019–2020 at around $6,980. Instead, tuition will likely be around $6,100.

U of T has increased its gross international tuition by an average of 6.1 per cent year-on-year between the 2014–2015 and 2018–2019 academic years. Between 2014–2015 and 2017–2018, the university has seen an average year-on-year domestic student intake decrease of 0.36 per cent while international student intake has increased by an average of 9.75 per cent.

The university signed the Strategic Mandate Agreement with the previous Liberal provincial government in 2018, which means it must decrease domestic undergraduate seats by 1,800 students through 2020. As such, U of T is unlikely to increase its domestic undergraduate intake, so any increases in recruitment to compensate would likely focus on domestic graduate and international student intake.

The 2008 economic recession is a useful comparison in determining how U of T could react to losses from the provincial government’s new policies. During the 2008–2009 academic year, the university’s endowment lost approximately 30 per cent of its value, with the university’s operating budget subsequently losing approximately $46 million. During that period, there were no endowment payouts.

In response to financial troubles, the university prioritized its funding to shared service areas and used carryforward and contingency funds to partially finance these areas in order to minimize use of new revenue for non-academic divisions.

At the latest Planning and Budget Committee meeting on January 10, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr discussed some of the steps U of T took during this period, saying that “there was a combination of cuts, borrowing from reserves, and other kinds of mechanisms.” Regehr also noted the creation of a collective central reserves system from which divisions that did not have sufficient reserves could borrow to fund operating costs.

The university has yet to discuss what steps it will take in light of impending losses due to the government’s announcements, but similar financial management as in 2008 seems to be a likely option to limit losses to the operating budget.

Although the latest provisions will hinder the university’s operating budget, its external investments through the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation are unlikely to face losses to the same extent as those in 2008.

Who tolls the bells?

The challenges and rewards of playing the bells of the Soldiers’ Tower

Who tolls the bells?

To commemorate the sacrifices of the University of Toronto community during World War I, the university’s president, Sir Robert Falconer, called for the construction of a memorial in December 1918.

“It must be a beautiful structure,” he wrote in an article in the University of Toronto Monthly, “as fine as the architecture can make it, not too large, but a true memorial, worthy of the greatest event in the University’s history.”

Of the 5,308 staff, undergraduate, and graduate students who served in World War I, 12 per cent died while in service. The names of the 628 fallen have been engraved on the memorial tower, constructed from 1919 to 1924, with funds raised with the help of the Alumni Association in response to Falconer’s call.

The clock and carillon — the bells of the tower — were installed in 1927, and the music of the bells has become a centrepiece of the annual Service of Remembrance at U of T since 1924.

But the 51 bells of the tower are not played automatically — at the top of the tower, unseen each year by the people attending the service, a musician presses the keys of a piano-like instrument connected to the bells to create the music for the ceremony.

Learning to play the carillon

Mateusz Olechnowicz, a graduate student of mathematics at U of T, first became drawn to the music from the bells in November 2015, while singing at a Service of Remembrance in a choir.

“I heard the bells playing,” Olechnowicz said, “I say this as a joke, but this is actually what I thought: ‘Wow, I’d rather be up there, playing the bells, than down here freezing in the winter.’”

As it turns out, said Olechnowitcz with a smile, “it’s actually cold up here too.”

Soon after the service ended, Olechnowitcz contacted the administrator of the Soldiers’ Tower, Kathy Parks, to ask about taking lessons. He began lessons in February 2016 under carillon teacher and lawyer Roy Lee, and has continued practicing to this day. Explaining what drives his interest in the instrument, he said that “it’s challenging and exciting to play.”

“But it’s also very much about the sound — it’s unlike other instruments.”

“On the piano,” Olechnowitcz continued, “if you’re playing and you make a mistake, you just go again. Especially when you practice in your home. In private, no one is listening.” But the music from practicing with the bells of the Soldiers’ Tower can be heard for “quite a long radius.”

As the carillon is a percussion instrument, explained Olechnowitcz, the key part to a pleasing performance to listeners is “having a constant rhythm.”

“Constant rhythm” is the key to a pleasing performance of the carillon, said Mateusz Olechnowicz. ADAM LAM/THE VARSITY

“Halting and altering a rhythm is one of the worst things you can do,” he said, as people fall into step to a constant rhythm. According to Olechnowitcz, to “slow down or speed up” is the most noticeable mistake to an audience member — “so the sounds and notes you produce are not as important as [maintaining] the rhythm.”

The anatomy of a carillon

While the sounds from a carillon are distinctive, the layout of a carillon’s keyboard is comparable to a piano’s, explained Lee during a rare public tour of the Soldiers’ Tower.

“If you play piano or organ, you’ll recognize this keyboard set-up,” said Lee. He explained how two layers of batons act like keys – with “white keys on the bottom, black keys on top,” and a similar “pedal board” for operation by foot.

Each baton is wired to one of the 51 bronze bells at the top of the tower, which, as a whole, enables the carillonneur — the carillon player — to hit notes in a range of over four octaves. When a carillonneur presses down on a baton, explained Lee, a 500-pound free swinging metal ball called a clapper strikes the inside of the bell, sounding a note.

“The pedals down here,” added Lee, motioning toward the pedal board, “replicate the bottom half of the keyboard.” A musician can thus strike the same bell either by pressing on a baton on the keyboard’s bottom layer, or by pressing a foot pedal near the floor.

The carillonneur can also control how loudly each note is played. Due to the carillon’s mechanical design, explained Lee, how much force the carillonneur applies to each baton translates directly into how loudly each clapper strikes its bell. “If you just lightly tap it,” he continued, “it’s going to be a soft sound. If you really whack it then it’s going to be a thunderous sound.”

The challenges that carillonneurs face

Even if a musician tries to play the carillon softly, the massive size of the bells causes reverberations across campus. This is a drawback for carillon students, explained Lee.

Out of respect for students attending classes, carillon students spend most of their time playing on a practice carillon. In this layout, each baton connects to a rubber mallet that hits a pipe, rather than a clapper that hits a bell.

This causes a carillonneur to feel “very little resistance” when pressing the batons of a practice carillon, compared to “quite a bit of resistance” when pressing those of a performance carillon, explained Lee.

“Imagine if you’re learning how to play the violin, and you can only practice 15 minutes a day on it, or 15 minutes a week,” said Lee. “And if I give you this plastic replica that sort of looks like a violin and then I tell you to just pretend you’re playing it for the rest of the time.”

“The lack of playing time is probably the biggest challenge for students,” continued Lee. A limitation of practice time on the carillon is set by the university out of respect for the people living and taking classes around the Soldiers’ Tower.

Usually only two to four students can learn from Lee at a particular time, to account for the limited practice time available to the carillonneurs. To overcome this challenge, they also arrange to practice on the performance carillon at the Metropolitan United Church, explained Olechnowicz, and think of ways to improve performance while away from their instrument.

“You can think about how to play without actually playing,” said Olechnowicz. “You can read the music and think about what you’re going to do. Plan. Maybe you can schedule your practice time so that you make the most use of it.”

Coordination between hand and foot movement poses another challenge to successful performance, explained Naoko Tsujita, a percussionist who’s been a yearlong student of Lee.

“It’s really hard to coordinate my full body,” said Tsujita, explaining the difficulty of simultaneously playing with the keyboard and the pedalboard. “I’m still in the process of being able to use my feet naturally and smoothly.”

Olechnowicz also identified coordination as a challenge. “I would say it’s one of the most difficult instruments I’ve learned to play,” he said, “because there’s lots of practice and coordination involved.”

To increase the fluidity of her performance, Tsujita has “tried to play as many times as possible” over the past year, while also recognizing that improvement with the instrument is a “really, really slow process” that takes a great deal of practice time.

But to Tsujita, the process of improvement is time well spent. “I thought this is a really good exercise for me to train my body in awareness, in musical expression,” she said.

She has also found joy in the freedom of expression from using her hands to press the batons to create music from unseen bells above her. “They actually feel like they are very close and connected,” she said. “I can express what I feel through my hands, and tell the bells how to say it.”


Music and the freedom of expression

Scott Allan Orr, a U of T alum who composed a piece for the carillon named “everything that rises must converge” for the 2018 Service of Remembrance, also found music from the instrument to be a means to convey a message.

The inspiration for the composition arose from a conversation between Orr and Lee about the “various ways in which bells are interconnected with wars and memorials,” wrote Orr in an email to The Varsity.

As a consequence of the war effort in Europe, explained Orr, “many bells were plundered during WWI for their metal,” and also to reduce “their use for signalling and maintaining the [wartime] spirit of people who were in the vicinity of these bells.”

“In this way,” he continued, “the ringing of bells have an incredibly powerful memorial [effect] as ringing out freely [represents] peace and optimism for the future.”

“Having attended U of T as an undergrad,” wrote Orr, “it was also a way that I could give back to a community that meant a lot to me personally.”

Lee played the premiere of Orr’s piece from the Soldiers’ Tower during November’s Service of Remembrance during the post-lude of the ceremony, and was followed by his students playing solo pieces from several other composers.

The carillon and the community

The most important events that the carillonneurs play for, said Lee, are the Service of Remembrance and the bi-annual convocation
ceremonies, to celebrate the graduation of students at U of T.

“It’s something that really ties together the graduating classes,” added Lee. “If you think about it, the bells were installed in 1927, and every graduating class has heard those bells on their Graduation Day.”

“Shared musical experiences are rare now. You can only hear this sound by being in the neighbourhood, so it’s something that will stay with you for a long time,” he said, “and remind you of your time at U of T.”

As for the remainder of the carillonneurs’ performances in between, the songs that play from the bells create a “nice soundscape for the university.”

“Sometimes I’ll walk of the tower,” he continued, “and hear somebody humming [a tune] that I’ve just played.”

“That’s a neat feeling because you know you’ve made a difference in somebody’s day,” Lee said, “and they may not even be conscious of it.”

Decolonizing Art History

What do Kent Monkman’s paintings reveal about Canada’s history?

Decolonizing Art History

At first glance, the Winter Garden Theatre is gorgeous. There are hundreds of tiny lights dotted around the ceiling, interspersed with a thick foliage of colourful leaves and twisting vines that make up the underside of the only operating two-tiered Edwardian theatre in the world.

On the night of November 14, the theatre was packed with people eager to see Kent Monkman, renowned Cree painter and artist, and the mastermind behind the Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience exhibition.

First showcased in the University of Toronto Art Museum for Canada 150, Shame and Prejudice was just a portion of Monkman’s prolific output, charting the trajectory of Canadian art history itself.

And that is what we had all gathered for: Monkman’s lecture, titled “Decolonizing Art History.”

Throughout the lecture, Monkman displayed an array of images from photographs to paintings, and sculpture to film stills and etchings. He began with several introductory images of the works of early settler-colonial painters, whose vast, lush paintings depict rich green forests and towering mountains that stretch into the distance.

Often the sun is shown bursting up from behind these mountains, denoting “biblical subjects transposed to North America,” as Monkman explained. The greenery and golden glow of the sun was not entirely at odds with the beautiful interior of the theatre — yet it was there that Monkman shattered the beauty of these early settler-colonial paintings.

The vast, gorgeous landscapes were barren of people, except for the European settlers who ‘discovered’ the land.

Many of Monkman’s earlier works were direct responses to these pieces, and inspired his transition from abstract to representational.

The first painting Monkman discussed was William Ranney’s “Boone’s First View of Kentucky,” which shows a sweeping skyline, with a small band of European settlers in the foreground, surveying the land before them. This use of nature as a vast empty space to conquer effectively painted over the very real Indigenous people who lived in these places before white settlers arrived.

Monkman admitted that he “rejected everything that [he] learned in college because [he] thought that representational artmaking was actually passé.” But he noted that it was upon learning more about celebrated early Canadian artists, such as George Catlin, that he became frustrated with the confining nature of his art. So, he turned to representational art.

Tracing Canada’s growth as a nation, his two-spirited identity, Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, sauntered her way through several of the paintings that Monkman deconstructed for the audience.

Miss Chief, as Monkman refers to her, is the iconic look for which Monkman is most well-known. Clothed in red, Miss Chief’s first appearance was in the painting “Artist and Model,” towering in platform heels and scantily clad in a fluttering pink loincloth and enormous, body-length feather headdress.

If you’re looking for an explanation, you’ll find one in her origin story, which Monkman promises can be read in his upcoming novel: The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.

My first experience with Miss Chief and Monkman himself was through his short film, The Group of Seven Inches. A short black-and-white, the film opens with Miss Chief riding a horse to the McMichael Collection and dismounting beside the replica Tom Thompson shack. She enters the shack to find two white men with whom she proceeds to dress and fondle with a kind of reckless abandon that one can only have, apparently, in a log cabin outside of one of Ontario’s most beloved art collections.

Monkman proceeded to note that this was shot entirely on a weekend when the gallery was closed, although that did not prevent a family with young children from peering through the windows of the cabin to be pleasantly surprised.

Monkman does not invoke Miss Chief merely to draw humour from Canadian art history, though. Rather, Miss Chief is his way of critiquing the way that queer and Indigenous narratives were and are erased from Canadian history through the medium of painting.

In turning our eye toward the history that we have been taught, Monkman’s lecture and his career of decolonization through art causes us to think about the structures that we inhabit and their compliance in upholding history and 150 years of colonization — no matter how beautiful they may be.

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.