The building is on Hoskin Avenue, just north of Hart House. If you walk through the Hart House parking lot from the shuttle bus stop you’ll notice a medieval-looking structure. Steeples, archways—all the classical elements I imagine they teach you in architecture class. I’ve heard it’s like moving to Notre Dame when you come out of high school. It can make you feel like a tourist.
The parking lot is cold. It hasn’t snowed much this year, but when the wind whips in your face it’s difficult to see. I can pick out the green roofs of the college. Students walk hurriedly along Hoskin to their next class or the library or the Chinese food truck that sits near the intersection with St. George. I notice others on the Philosopher’s Walk, to the east. They are also in a rush. No one wants to be outside on a day like this.
The building is impressive. Gothic Collegiate architecture, they call it. And, like the college, it is full of history. When John Strachan, the first Anglican Bishop of Toronto, founded Trinity College in 1851, it served only 20 students, most of them studying divinity. Back then they were based in a massive building on Queen West.
In 1904 Trinity College joined the University of Toronto. They remained at their Queen Street building until 1925, when they moved to their current location to be closer to the rest of the university. The new building on Hoskin was modelled on their old one, which was demolished in the 1950s after temporarily housing the Canadian military in the Second World War. Trinity Bellwoods Park, named for and adjacent to the former college, is all that remains of its memory.
I pull at the large wooden door and peer in. No one is around. It’s the last week of exams and everyone has gone home for the winter break. All the better for exploring.
The cold is consuming. Must be the stone. There are some Communism-era radiators bracketed to the walls, but only one seems to be working. It’s a lost cause, anyway.
My boots click on the stone floors and the sound is amplified down the silent corridors.
“It’s all in your head.”
I need some reassurance. I feel like I shouldn’t be here. But I have come for a reason. And I want to see if there are any clues.
A set of French doors lead into a quad. Here stonework forms a grid pattern on the ground. The lines bend and twist like calligraphic flourishes, stretching around the trees to the four corners where the grass ends. On the quad’s southwest side there’s a bust of Strachan with an inscription. Opposite that, an Obama 2012 poster is taped to a window.
Directly ahead, on the far wall with the gated entrance to the field, are some administrative offices. This part looks different. Lighter. Cleaner. More institutional. There are stairs and doors and signs that cover the length of the side.
I look up. The walls have formed six ledges at the top where the roof begins. On each of these ledges sits a short statue. Their metal has oxidized over the years, leaving them nearly unrecognizable under a green coating. One looks like a mitre, another like a tricorne.
The second ledge from the right is conspicuously empty.
I have been told this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when a statue was proudly displayed to all those passing through the building. It, like the others, was noted for its symbolic connection to Trinity College. No one knows for sure who took it down, though there are theories. When I ask what the statue was, they tell me.
A skull with two keys.
It is true.
This is a story about what was. About an institution that, after a century, broke away from a part of its history. It’s a story about the people who carry on this tradition, in the darkness of the night and the secrecy of their bedrooms. Under the veil of the collective and feigned ignorance, a secret society operates to this day.
The scene opens. That guy from Dawson’s Creek is in an interrogation room, surrounded by police officers. He has some information about the death of his friend Will.
“The Skulls, man. Who do you think is pulling the strings around here?”
The cops don’t listen. They tell him he’s crazy, and in an overacted fit of rage he lunges at the nearest detective. They handcuff him and pull him out of the room as he screams.
“I’m innocent! Innoceeeeeeeeeent!”
Most of you probably don’t remember The Skulls, the 2000 thriller starring Joshua Jackson and Paul Walker (of Fast and Furious fame). You probably don’t remember it because you had better things to do for the entirety of its theatrical run, not to mention you would never ever pay money to see either of those two douchebags on screen. You’ve got your principles, and I respect that.
If you manage to rent the VHS, you’ll notice two things. First, the Skulls, a secret society not so subtly based on Yale’s infamous Skull and Bones, are somewhat of an open secret. People know they’re around, who their members are, and when they pull shenanigans on campus.
Second, it was filmed at the University of Toronto.
At Trinity College.
The filmmakers must have heard something. Someone must have told them about how Trinity College had their own secret society—a real one that in many ways was similar to the secret society depicted in the movie. They probably heard about how, only eight years before the film, this secret society was banned from campus after a number of very public incidents—and how the college was still trying to rid itself of their association.
I wonder if the movie helped.
I discuss the film with a few Trinity students because I feel like it’s an easy way to lead into the conversation they don’t want to have. I’ve heard that Episkopon is still a touchy subject. Administrators ignore it. Members don’t talk about it. Most students keep their opinions to themselves, either for fear of rapprochement or because I’m not the kind of guy they let into their group. You know, knowledge is power, or some Foucauldian shit like that. The only reason these few are here with me is because they don’t want to be rude. They didn’t know I would bring it up.
I tell them about the part in the movie where the Skulls meet in the cave under what is supposed to be the Yale campus. I tell them about their dress, their bond, their pranks, and their high status. They look at each other, uninterested. “Nothing quite like that,” they assure me, but I can feel some hesitation. I press on. I tell them about the fancy cars, the island retreat, the contracts they sign, and the keys they wear around their necks.
The one on the right looks up.
“They wear keys around their necks. And the Scribe, he wears the biggest key.”
I’ve found something of interest. After weeks of research, dozens of unanswered emails and Facebook messages, favours called in from high school acquaintances, and snooping around the college property, I’ve got a lead.
Information comes—slowly at first, but with more detail and excitement over the next few questions. It becomes a game. They remember things they thought they had forgotten and laugh about their stories. A picture of Episkopon begins to develop in my mind.
Apart from the “At-homes”, Episkopon has three major meetings every school year. These are called “Readings”. The first Reading is usually in September; the members meet at Queen’s Park and make their way to a ravine in the city. The next one is in the late fall—usually on Halloween—at Trinity Bellwoods Park, the original site of Trinity College. The last one is sometime in the spring, held in a fraternity or another acceptable indoor location.
What do they wear?
Tuxedos. The men do, at least. The women wear all black clothing and bright red lipstick. They all wear large keys around their necks. Oh, and gowns. Everyone must wear a Trinity dress gown.
There are women, too?
There are two Episkopons: Fem-Pon for women and Man-Pon for men. There are 15 members in each. Both groups attend the November Reading together.
What’s the Scribe?
The Scribe is the leader, the one who conducts the Readings. When they are elected for the coming year they have to run through the quad, naked.
Do they all just go home after their meetings?
Not usually. They often go to Grossman’s Tavern for a few drinks.
Wait. What do they do?
First we must rid ourselves of the misconceptions.
Everyone I have spoken with—anyone I’ve heard of who’s even remotely connected to Trinity College—has given me a different answer. Most of the time they tell me that Episkopon makes fun of people, or some variation of that. But to leave it at that is both uninformed and a disservice to the group.
It began as a satirical newspaper by the same name in 1858. I’ve heard a few anecdotes about why it came about. Some say it was in part to curb the “better than you” attitude present in those days—a response to a need for chastising.
The society has since changed. They stopped printing and began compiling satirical prose for their annual volumes. These volumes were ornate, sizeable tomes, filled with illustrations and scripts. It then became tradition to carry out readings of these manuscripts at the end of each school year, whence comes the name of the modern meeting.
These readings contained thoughts and commentary on their fellow Trinity students. A gentle poking fun, if you will. Anyone could submit a piece, which was then read aloud by the Scribe at the Readings.
This tradition carried on for well over a century, all under the permission (hell, the support) of the college. But then things changed.
Not all at once, mind you. It is important to remember that at the time of the college’s founding, everyone was of the same background: white and Anglican. As the makeup of our society changed through the years, so did the makeup of the University of Toronto and, by extension, Trinity College. People, we’re different—more different now than before—and satire is meant, if nothing more, to exaggerate and point out differences.
There is no clear timeline for when readings turned from good-natured to hateful, but we do know when it became too much to handle.
“TRINITY CUTS OFF EPISKOPON” reads the October 8, 1992 headline of The Varsity. “With little debate and no opposition, Trinity College Council voted on Monday to cut all ties between Episkopon and the college.”
No more funding from the college. No more events on college property. No more Episkopon in college life. In a symbolic move, Trinity removed the board on the wall listing all the past Scribes. It now rests in a basement somewhere.
This, all a result of pressure from disgruntled students, many of whom were offended by the readings that year, which were described as “sexist, racist, and homophobic”. These students even created the group “Students Against Episkopon”, the spokesperson of which was doused with a bucket of human feces when exiting his dorm room one day. Episkopon was to blame.
The intense coverage by all, not just student, media sparked a war of words and elicited a number of responses in the defence of Episkopon. One particularly vocal member wrote to The Varsity, ending his particularly harshly worded letter with a warning:
“Thankfully, you will be gone soon. We, however, will not. Although you may think you have killed Episkopon, the only casualty here has been Truth. See you in Hell.”
I want to know what has changed since then. I want to know if and how Episkopon still operates. Do students support them? Does the administration know or care? Are their Readings still as offensive?
I need to speak with a member.
No one responds to my emails. I consider posing as a Trinity student looking for more information on the next meeting. I feel that might not turn out so well for me.
A Facebook event pops up. It’s a gathering for Trinity students at a nearby pub, the Bedford Academy. Maybe I can get some information there—someone is bound to be a member. I enlist my friend, Helen, who will act as my spy. They might know what I look like by now.
We arrive early and sit down for a few drinks. We go over the game plan. She will approach Trinity students and ask when the next Reading is. If they become suspicious, she will flirt with them. I will watch, casually and from a distance. It is foolproof.
The bar fills up quickly. Most of the students come straight from a pre-drink and several are already having difficulty standing. Helen sets off.
I get a text: “Met some new friends J”. This could be good. I don’t hear back for another half an hour; I contemplate searching the crowd for her. But before I can leave my seat she returns with writing in marker scrawled across her arms. She’s been having fun when she should have been working.
“Did you find anyone?” I ask.
“No. Well, sort of. I have his name.”
“He” didn’t want to talk to her. He didn’t even want to introduce himself; she had to find out his name from others. But all is well: I now have his @utoronto email.
Early the next morning I send him an email, explaining that I am writing an article about Episkopon, and that I would like to get his thoughts on a few things.
A week goes by with no reply. I forget about it.
And then I receive a message:
Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know.
NSTM. Notandi Sunt Tibi Mores.
Your ways are being noted.
People have asked me why I want to know about Episkopon. Do I want to expose them to further media scrutiny? Do I want to embarrass them? Do I have a bone to pick?
I don’t care about any of that.
I am interested in the role they play in the ongoing history of the University of Toronto, whether or not the university sanctions it. I am interested in how they represent an element of the institution that we have moved far away from. But most of all, I’m interested in the thought and practice of tradition in an ever-changing and increasingly public world.
Now and then people will speak out against Episkopon. Most recently, a Toronto Star article featured negative reactions from Trinity administrators, calling for an end to the their practices after a student was seriously injured in an initiation ceremony. “It seems to me that the way that it will die, as I trust it will, will be when the students decide that this is something they don’t want to buy into,” said Andy Orchard, Trinity’s provost.
It is only a matter of time until the next incident and the next debate. Exclusive groups will always pose a problem for the university. There’s no way around it. And there’s nothing more the university can do to prevent students from participating. Some argue that this tradition has become engrained in student life and is inseparable from the college. Others disagree.
Therein lies the appeal.
Two years ago I visited a friend at Trinity College. I wanted to have dinner in Strachan Hall because I heard it was unlike anything else on campus. You’re required to wear a gown, so I borrowed one from another friend.
We sat and ate and talked and I joked about how I felt right at home in Hogwarts, the muggle that I was. We finished our dinner, cleared our plates, and walked out of the dining hall along the main corridor. We passed a few postings for the Lit Society on the notice board. One advertised an “Ice Cream Social” after the event that night.
“You know what that means?” my friend asked.
“What? Ice cream?”
“It’s code for the Episkopon Reading,” he said.
It was happening that night. I asked if we could go, but he didn’t want to. He agreed to drive by and hope for a glimpse.
Later that evening we got into his car and began to drive around Queen’s Park Circle. I can’t remember how many times we made the loop, but I know that my friend’s arm was awfully tired afterwards.
About 20 minutes in, I saw a light flickering at the opposite end of the park. As we drove around the loop the light became brighter and turned into several lights. People dressed in black were holding candles.
As we drove closer they walked away, the light trailing behind them, slowly disappearing behind the trees.