The author came to Peter Robinson College straight out of high school, played music and got bad marks, was kicked out, then re-enrolled. After graduating in the mid-90s, he spent time in Guelph, then returned for a Master’s. During his Master’s, the university decided to close PR, overruling Senate and launching an institutional power struggle. The author drifted into full-time organizing, eventually giving up graduate school for jobs as Senior Don and editor of Arthur. This is his story.
I ended up at PR because I was a musician. I don’t mean that in a destiny-took-a-hand kind of way, although … sure. I literally was there because I was a musician.
When I was told to apply to universities, I complied passively. I got into three schools, and didn’t care which I went to, so I asked someone and she said, “The Born Again Pagans are from Peterborough. Trent probably has a good music scene.” Sold.
I was initially assigned to Lady Eaton College, but hated the idea of living outside the city, so I called and asked to transfer. They informed me that I couldn’t just switch, I had to make a case for why I belonged at PR. Not having anticipated this, I began “I’m a musician …” “Ok,” she said, interrupting me. I was a PR student.
I arrived a few months later for Introweek, where upper year students in matching t-shirts introduce the first years to the college. I don’t know the genealogy of calling these upper year students Amigos and Amigas, but as Yann Martel says in The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, it’s a weird idea, and it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the university’s myth culture. Anyway.
One Amigo in particular, Dave Scott, impressed me instantly as someone I wanted to know. He had a thick, messy head of black hair and Buddy Holly glasses, a kind of nebbish charisma and immense stores of nervous energy. He was a drummer and a multi-instrumentalist, and he announced to us all on the first day that he was scouting for musicians to be in his new band.
When I approached him, though, he informed me curtly that he already had enough guitarists – curtly because, he later told me, he’d heard me playing folk songs and thought I might have poor taste in music. By the end of the week, I’d played Louie Louie enough times that he relented, and I joined his band.
The Jolly Hangman had been shut down the year before (in a word: drugs), so it became our rehearsal spot, as well as the site of our first gig, where we were billed as Zero Conspiracy, the idea being that the first word would change at every show, though it never did. We played dorky funk with a lot of nervous energy, and all of our friends, Amigas and Amigos and Amigees, danced like awkward freaks (again: drugs).
In the Orbit (1992-1993)
I was a student in name only. I wrote one essay that I thought was good in first year, an English paper on “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” that inexplicably earned me a C. I think I wrote one other one, but that was it, plus I missed some exams, so I was sent a very polite notification that I was rusticated – barred from enrolling in classes for one year.
I came back to Peterborough the next fall anyway, and spent a year unemployed and immersed in the city’s underground arts scene. I played a lot of shows and wrote more good songs in one year than I have in my whole life since.
One show I remember particularly clearly was at the PR Dining Hall, where I opened for Bob Wiseman. It was an event for Men Walking Against Violence Against Women, a group that arose in the post-Montreal Massacre era as a voice for feminist allies, at a time when a lot of women opted to organize in all-female groupings. I was a bit intimidated by the Men as intellectuals and as feminists (things I aspired to be but knew I wasn’t), and was pleased they had asked me.
The show was fine, but mostly what I remember was that afterwards everyone called Bob Wiseman on his politics. Karyn Ellis and Aaron Cavon chastised him for singing about his victimhood and not his gender and race privilege, while others harangued him for being in Blue Rodeo and recording for a major label – problems solved within a year or two, when he left the band and was dumped by the label.
There was another show at the Dining Hall that I almost went to prison for. The poster, in addition to the band names and the date and location, contained an aggressively anti-religious screed, and the claim that the show was promoted by Kawartha Youth for Christ – who contacted the police. As one of the acts, my actual name was on the poster. Long story short, the show was moved to someone’s basement, and no one went prison. We did learn what libel law was, though.
The magic of the downtown colleges was that they permeated the city. You could be not a student, or you could be nominally a student and not really go to classes or do any assignments, and you were still educated. If you played in a band at the Union Theatre, if you organized a rally in the park across from City Hall, if you argued about books with your friends at the Only Cafe, you were still in the PR orbit.
What an Education It’s Been (1992-1994)
Around the time of the start of my rustication, Zero Conspiracy fizzled out and from its ashes rose More Nasty Reds, a more disciplined project that aspired to intricate instrumental interplay and thoughtful lyrics. We moved into the Hangman and set about trying to craft perfect songs. Recorded evidence suggests our argument to music ratio was around 5:2.
Aaron Cavon, a bass player who had gone to high school with Dave Scott and was his first recruit at Trent, became my best friend despite a rough start, and we collaborated quite a bit on writing. Dave’s songs were generally frantically existential, but Aaron and I tended to write about identity politics–or, as we called them in the 90s, politics.
We were all teacher types, and our songs had a kind of didactic (pedantic?) edge to them that some people liked. Everyone in the band but me was a student, and a very good one at that. I had never been a good student, but I increasingly thought I might become one.
During my rustication, I bought a book called If You Lived Here at Marginal Distribution. It had an essay by Martha Rosler called “Fragments of a Metropolitan Viewpoint,” which played the same role for me academically that the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead had played musically: it made me think, “I can do this, and I will.”
I surrendered to the inevitable and re-enrolled. But I still devoted at least as much time to writing and rehearsing and arguing about music as before.
We were learning how to do things, expanding and disciplining our creative minds, and the Hangman was our classroom. Even though I missed its heyday as a venue, I was still a student there in that sense.
One of the least remembered aspects of the resistance to the closure of the downtown colleges is the night life that surrounded it. I was playing tons of shows in that period, and a lot of them were benefits for the cause or were punctuated by speeches and announcements about what had gone on in Senate that day. Which was more fun that it might sound.
The college also officially put on a lot of events that were tied to the resistance. All of the usual social gatherings of students, fellows and alumni took on a kind of martial atmosphere, with everyone talking strategy and slandering the administration and inevitably a slightly sozzled speech from one of the faculty about us and them, and the terror twixt us.
One of the best of these was Founders’ Day, which commemorated the press release announcing the opening of PR and Traill in 1964, which the university officially didn’t bother marking. For us, it was a marvelous excuse for a party in the Dining Hall with all the right people, some dancing, and probably some misbehaviour in the anterooms.
Founders’ Day happened on the actual day it commemorated, but it also happened just after a particularly intense and fraught political action that threatened to divide the student activists, so it was an ideal occasion for a good celebration.
The debate was about whether to continue to protest against the closures through statements and symbolism, or actually resist the administration’s plans by direct action. It ended with a decision to occupy the Vice-President’s office a few weeks after Founders’ Day.
We grad students loved the “invention of tradition” around something like Founders’ Day (Simpsons fans called it “a perfectly cromulent holiday”) but there was also an earnestness in our eagerness to get drunk on such terms: we did feel like we were not only acting in the best spirit of the founders, but also that we were, perhaps, founders ourselves.
Think about it: if the resistance had won, if PR and Traill were still active educational institutions, if the Senate was still Trent’s governing body, and if the administration lived in fear of militant students and faculty, what would that university have been like?
Find me a Grave Man (2002-2003)
I made the fatal mistake of signing on to be the last Senior Don appointed by PR, in the summer of 2001 when it looked like the college just might survive. It didn’t, so I spent a year living in a kind of institutional mausoleum, and had cool rapport with my boss, the first college head appointed by the administration. It was a hard year.
I later found out that I was very sick most of this time, which makes sense because I felt terrible and cried a lot. The fact that leaving PR to walk forty feet to my other job editing Arthur was a breath of fresh air tells you a lot.
No faculty would set foot at PR on principle, and even the upper year students found it too depressing, so it was, for the first time in its history, neither a hub of cultural activity nor a barrel of laughs. There were good people among the students – Alissa Paxton and Stephanie Cann among others – but the institution was drying up around them and they knew it.
The lowest, most surreal point in all that year was the day I looked out my window and saw a large machine digging a Hangman-shaped hole next to the Hangman. The structure was then lifted off the ground, dangled over the hole, and lowered into its grave. When the earth was dumped on top of it and spread around, no one said a few words, or sang a hymn. It was sad and lonely, but also just weird and a bit funny.