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Banners hung from student housing and throngs of London Street partygoers contrast the Head of the Trent sign at Champlain College. Graphic: Evan Robins

Who Loves Trent Rowing?

Written by
Evan Robins
October 19, 2023
Who Loves Trent Rowing?
Banners hung from student housing and throngs of London Street partygoers contrast the Head of the Trent sign at Champlain College. Graphic: Evan Robins

“Who loves Trent Rowing?” 

Walk around on Trent University campus in the twilight weeks of September and you’ll no doubt find this question scrawled in all manner of innocuous places in the muted colours of dollar-store sidewalk chalk.

On walls, on brick walkways, on the guardrails of the Faryon bridge; this memetic question is one that even the most agoraphobic of Symons campus students will no doubt find themselves unable to avoid.

“Who loves Trent Rowing?”

That is the question I’ve been trying to answer all day.

It’s September 30th. I am at the Head of the Trent Regatta. Life is hell.

By the time you are reading this, two weeks out from my colleague’s excellent piece on the matter, the discourse surrounding this year’s Head of the Trent Regatta coinciding with National Day of Truth and Reconciliation has been well trodden, to the point of being—if not still significant—at the very least “old news.”

Trent’s decision to schedule the event on the same weekend as a relatively new holiday commemorating the atrocities committed by the Canadian state against the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island—on whose patronage it very much sells itself—is, to put it mildly, both baffling and deplorable.

Nonetheless, the severity of this unfortunate conflict in priorities on the part of the university was no doubt exacerbated by the behaviour of Trent University students in conjunction with the regatta. If Trent opened the wound, to many in the Indigenous community—and admittedly, Peterborough at large—rambunctious students partying late into the evening on a day of solemn reflection only served to rub salt into it.

While this issue in and of itself merits extensive discussion and coverage—to the point that it has, in many ways, dominated the Arthur home page in the time since the regatta—the dimensions through which I wish to examine Head of the Trent as a social phenomenon are far more macroscopic.

Being as it has been a tradition of Trent University for the past fifty-two odd years, I wonder if we might not take Head of the Trent somewhat for granted, a given of the ineffable “Trent experience.”

What I wish to do then, is to deconstruct this monolith of Trent’s contemporary self-conception with all the aplomb of the gonzo journalists of the era of Trent’s own initial conception. Getting to the root of the issue, I think we must first ask hard hitting questions, such as “What is Head of the Trent, exactly?” and, moreover, “Why is Head of the Trent?"

To this end, I spent the weekend of this year’s regatta (at times begrudgingly) soaking in the sights, sounds, and scenery, getting a feel for the “vibes” of the whole ordeal, as it were. The question which stuck with me throughout, and the question that informs my methodology herein, is that one to which this article owes its name: 

“Who loves Trent Rowing?”

That, readers, is what I set to find out in writing this. 

What I found, or perhaps moreso what I didn’t find was—as such things often are—ever the more interesting.

Part One: A Tale of Three Homecomings; or, “Where are all the HOTT people?”

Content Warning: This section contains strong language and discusses sexual harassment, misogyny, and rape culture

Every year, on the first weekend in October, Trent University hosts one of the largest regattas in Canada. More than 600 boats take to the Otonabee river in a time trial to determine the fastest competitor over a grueling 5km course, which weaves through canals and a small lake, finishing under the university’s iconic Faryon bridge.

Rowing is big at Trent—big business, big culture, big everything. With a measly 9000 undergrads to its name compared to the many tens of thousands elsewhere in the province (and beyond), Trent is not, from a purely statistical point of view, in the best position to excel at sporting competition.

Yet while Trent doesn’t have tens of thousands of students with rich parents, a lot of free time, and—more importantly—sports scholarships, it does have one thing most other schools don’t have: a river running smack-dab through the middle of its campus.

So it is that when confronted with the need to establish its “thing,” Trent University settled on rowing. 

Trent makes the most of rowing to sell itself to the prospective student. High schoolers touring the university over the summer of their junior year will likely be treated to the sights of solitary rowers sculling the stretch between the Peterborough Rowing Club and the Bata Library steps. 

Throw a rock at Trent’s website and you’d be hard pressed not to hit a picture of the most gorgeously airbrushed, chiselled-chin, white-skinned blond and blue-eyed man you’ll see outside Sweden posed with deliberate and artificial spontaneity in a boat.

Even the President is in on the action

All of this—what one might generally term the Trent Rowing Conspiracy—builds to Head of the Trent weekend; two days of some of the best novice rowing in Southern Ontario, which doesn’t really sound all that impressive when you break it down.

Administration calls this “HOTR”—Head of the Trent Regatta—because it sounds professional.  The students call it “HOTT,” because there’s more slightly-less-than-clever puns one can chalk on the various chalkable outdoor surfaces of Trent University’s Symons campus using that acronym. Also, despite them being in university, proofreading students’ work professionally has taught me that most of them can’t spell.

People congregate in the hundreds, perhaps the thousands, up and down the banks of the Otonabee river to crane their necks as sweat-slick crews speed by in a mad dash against the clock.

It’s great sport. Most of these athletes are as fit as they’ll ever be, and it shows. The boats tear down the river with the schunk of as many as eight oars hitting the water in unison. The coxswains bark orders like drill sergeants as gleeful crowds roar from the riverbanks. As crews emerge from the confines of the penultimate no-passing section—“The Narrows,” as they’re colloquially known—they jostle for position in a wild sprint to the finish line. 

Beside the joy of sport done well, there’s equally that of it being done poorly. With the regatta welcoming intermediate and novice crews alike, the beginners often provide opportunities for more lurid spectacle. It’s not unusual to see boats bouncing between the walls of the Narrows, careening madly into river banks as the cox screams “Port! Port! PORT!” or else straight-up colliding with one another in their desperate attempts to be first over the line.

I Saw the Boat Sink at Head of the Trent 2022, and All I Wrote Was This Stupid Article.

You might think that this is, then, somewhat of a case of “Asked and Answered.”

“Who Loves Trent Rowing?”—a lot of people, it would seem. I mean, people come from far and wide just to spectate this thing. My parents drive down from Ottawa for it every year, even though I am, between my brother and I, decidedly not the athletic child.

Shouldn’t it be testament to a degree of love that my father stands for the better part of two days in the for-some-reason blistering autumn sun watching boats full of kids who aren’t his own scream down a river in a city in which he doesn’t live, at a school he has never attended, in a country in which he wasn’t born? 

Yes, I suppose—after all, people do stupid things when they’re in love. As a recovering U-Haul lesbian, I am myself no stranger to such tendencies, though I’ve yet to find myself compelled to cross any great distance to watch rowing

If Head of the Trent were just a rowing competition, this article would be at least eight-hundred words shorter than it is as I write this. That is to say, if Head of the Trent were just about rowing, this article would not exist.

Head of the Trent is not, however, just a rowing competition. It is a confluence of events whose significance to Trent University and the city it occupies are hard to articulate in isolation.

While the regatta is, in many ways, positioned as a jewel of sorts in Trent University’s crown of events, it tends nonetheless to find itself overshadowed by another acronym possessive of four letters and beginning with “H”—”HOCO,” Trent University’s Homecoming Weekend. 

Homecoming, the prodigal return of alumni to the erstwhile stomping grounds of their alma mater is—like many things—a particularly North American psychosis. Wikipedia notes it as a common practice in the United States, Canada, and Liberia.

In recent years, as our beloved nation state has joyfully followed its neighbour to the south down the glittering path of civil rights abuses, Neoconservativism, and the slow descent into fascism, so too has American culture began to trickle up North, if not into Canada at large, then at least into Southern Ontario.

So it is that around the same time as HOTT, many schools are heralding the return of their favourite alumni who peaked at twenty-three years of age with football games, or—in the case of Trent—rowing. 

Thus, Head of the Trent sees not only the influx of hundreds, if not thousands, of athletes and spectators, but equally the return of innumerable Trent University alumni—many of them with an eye to forego lucidity in favour of a weekend of perpetual inebriation. A bender, as the kids say. 

There’s the HOTT for the rowers, and the HOTT for the alumni, it would seem. As a matter of fact, one could spend the entire Saturday of HOTT weekend without seeing a single boat; Trent has assured the opportunity, by means of the various impromptu performance venues and beer-dispensation locations scattered across Symons campus.

When I was nineteen I worked at a grocery store. Despite being unionized, the position still managed to suck for more reasons than I can list here. That said, my coworkers proved perhaps the most memorable part of my ungainful employment therein. I worked with a guy, who was probably an alcoholic, who told me—upon mine informing him of my intention to attend Trent University—that he’d been to Head of the Trent the last three years running. He had three commemorative beer glasses to prove it, he told me; he didn’t remember a single minute. 

I remember one morning he came to work on meth.

Let’s face it, there is no world in which, even with all of Trent’s insistent social media propagandizing, HOTT is actually about rowing. You pretty much lose any claim to that fact once you start marking the occasion by giving people beer mugs. If Trent deserved any commendation for making Orientation Week a (theoretically) completely dry occasion, such praise is quickly lost when you set up the world’s most hick Coachella ripoff in the parking lot of your gorgeous Japanese-inspired mid-century modern low-rise collegiate residence building—even if you refrain from outwardly calling it a “Beer Garden.”

If I can hear a cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” belting from nearly a kilometer away as I sit at the Nassau Mills lock station, I’ve got news for you: You aren’t hosting a boat race, you’re hosting a music festival, and I’ve got some words about your song selection!

Last year a friend and I ventured to Symons Campus, in spite of the crowds of tailgaters posted near just about every entrance—to see the Rowing, mind you!—only to be accosted by some charmless thirty-something reprobate with a five-o’clock shadow and a can of Coors in each hand, who catcalled us, spat on the ground, and proceeded to smash his freshly-acquired commemorative pint glass with tactless aplomb upon the red bricks of the Bata Podium before asking “Why did you do that?”

Truly the Trent experience I signed up for!

Normally I’d offer a pithy remark about how I don’t mind being catcalled, seeing as most people on the street call me a faggot, however, in this instance I find it necessary to emphasize the chain of culpability. 

If you curate an environment in which persons—especially men, be they middle-aged or otherwise—feel comfortable with sexually harrassing young adult women, then congratulations; you’re enabling rape culture.

Trent University, think on your sins. :)

Look, I get that sad men who peaked in 2005, when they were the only third-year in residence at Champlain college, and therefore have nothing better to do than hit on twenty-year old women walking around the campus of their university, deserve to feel special too. It’s just that, in surrendering campus to its alumni for the weekend with the cheery salute of “Have fun! Don’t stick your dick in anyone that looks seventeen!” Trent unwittingly (to extend them the benefit of the doubt) makes campus feel unsafe for the very students paying to attend it.

I don’t begrudge alumni the desire to return to a place where they doubtlessly made many memories, nor do I wish to foreclose them the opportunity to reunite with old friends. I do, however, think that they’re not exactly entitled to act as if they own the place when I’m the one paying to be here—and paying twice as much as they ever did, at that!

I therefore have to ask: do these raucous old-timers love Trent Rowing? 

Reader, I must admit I’m not sure. Many alumni are grateful, no doubt, of the opportunity proximally afforded to them by Trent Rowing to get “fuckin’ hammered, dude” at a time in the morning that would otherwise no doubt be considered deeply unsociable (or, at the very least, impolite). 

As to whether they love Trent Rowing itself, I can offer no definitive conclusion, though I might submit that they love beer slightly more than rowing. 

Heeding the words of our beloved President therefore, then, who once famously said “Thou shalt Groarke no other hops before me,” I can only conclude we must continue looking if we are to find the true rowing devotees of Trent.

After all, this tale of two HOCOs does not confine itself to Trent’s primary campus, however. One can equally find flocks of inebriates tracing migratory lines across Peterborough’s downtown. However, these profligates congregating in the perimeter of one block of London Street are not depressed office workers come, à la Bruce Springsteen, to relive their glory days. Nay, these are—as a matter of fact—current undergrads of Trent University.

“But Ms. Robins,” you, my strawman, ask. “Wouldn’t they be on campus watching their peers compete in the organized sporting competition for the glory of the late-capitalist institution for which they pay tuition in exchange for [Goods and/or Services]?” 

I mean, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? 

Well you probably wouldn’t, because you reading this probably know how the past several years of Comings-Home have transpired. That said, if you don’t—either by virtue of living a life reminiscent of that of the protagonist of Dostoevky’s Notes from Underground, or else a combination of willful ignorance and generally being an offline sort-of person, permit me to retread the issue.

The past three years we’ve had Homecoming. The past three years, Trent students have congregated in inordinate numbers and absolutely trashed London Street in downtown Peterborough, ON.

Open and flagrant consumption of alcohol is the low water mark for this particular gathering. Around town you’ll see bolts of white cloth salvaged from bedspreads flying from balconies and covered porches of student homes. Scrawled across these makeshift banners sit such charming slogans as “Do DILFS, Not Drugs,” “Toronto Sucks, Kingston Blows,” and just about anything which might be funny to someone with two White Claws® in them.

Students gather to admire a banner which reads “FUCK FLEMING[,] CUM IN TRENT.” Retrieved from a Trent Student’s Instagram page (yes, they did choose to post this publicly).

Inevitably, many of these “ “ funny “ “ signs eventually sink to the lowest common denominator of humour to men in their early twenties—misogyny. While none sunk to the despicable troughs of the infamous 1989 Queen’s University “No Means ___” scandal, you’d not be remiss to see signs the like of “Drop Your Daughter Off Here” in downtown Peterborough at HOCO ‘22. But hey, considering Queen’s and Western still see the most absolutely vile shit said and scrawled by students each year, we’re doing alright by comparison, right?

Well, no. Trent consistently has problems reporting rates of sexual assault on its campuses—let alone amid the massive off-campus student body. While one could argue (and administration probably would) that most of these often crude displays represent isolated instances off-campus, and are not indicative of the culture on campus, they remain inextricably tied to the university nonetheless. 

Regardless of whether students are living on or off campus, the fact remains that they are here because of Trent. That is the truth of the university town, and it's a rather uncomfortable one for an institution which would rather not shoulder the blame for the less appetizing side effects of welcoming a demographic of young men all too willing to act out and rarely, if ever, seeing discipline for their bad behaviour.

Whether or not the behaviour of students off campus is indicative of the culture of said campus is besides the point when—as mentioned—I myself was sexually harassed on campus nonetheless. It should be no great surprise to anyone, then, when I mention being verbally accosted by partiers on George Street at Head of the Trent ‘22. If I’m not safe on campus, and I’m not safe downtown, I have to ask: where exactly am I supposed to feel welcome?

An October 2021 Editorial from The Queen’s Journal gets very much to the heart of the issue. “Behind each misogynistic sign, there’s an entire social group that’s responsible,” write the Editorial Board. “[H]ousemates who endorsed the idea, friends and acquaintances who were complicit in their silence, or passersby that laughed and posted pictures.”

It is very much a cultural thing here in Peterborough; in the Trent periphery—and at many universities beyond. The structures which permit such behaviour to continue are rooted in social media culture: in the spectacle they afford, both to individuals and to accounts like @trentpartylife, to local businesses like the Social Pub, and to institutions like Trent itself through both financial gain and social prestige.

Yet on these matters Trent remains remarkably silent. It took students flipping a private security car at HOCO 2022 for the university to muster any form of response, and even then it proved little more than a solemn JPEG of a statement posted to their social media profiles.

No matter how much it’d like to ignore this fact, however, Trent is the raison d’être for this behaviour. When students are all wearing your school’s merch on the weekend of your school’s Homecoming, it seems a little tenuous to claim that you had no hand in the proceedings. 

A picture from @trentpartylife shows four students posed in front of a sign which reads “WHERE ARE ALL THE HOTT PEOPLE?” The quote is attributed to Michael Scott, of The Office fame.

A younger, dumber me wrote an article about this phenomenon. I might be biased, but I think she made some points. That article not only predicted (in a roundabout way) the car flipping which would take place the following year, but equally carried the implicit promise that lest Trent do anything to quell the antics of the student body, HOCO havoc would only continue to get even more out of hand. 

It’d be a lie to say I take no pride in saying “I told you so”—as a matter of fact I pride myself exceedingly in this instance on being right. Each year the behaviour has continued, and arguably each year it has gotten worse. 

A cursory glance at the size of crowds at the 2021 HOCO video as compared to subsequent years highlights an obvious disparity. Empirically speaking, more people are embracing the hedonism.

Yet in spite of this, we are no closer to actually answering the question central to our research. We still don’t know who—if anyone—loves Trent Rowing. The literature study has proved of little use in this regard.

Maybe then, it’s time for some field work.

Part 2: It Takes a Teenage Riot to Get Me Out of Bed

Content warning: This section discusses sexual harrassment, misogyny, domestic assault, police violence, and rape culture.

It’s Saturday, September 30th. The ass crack of dawn just barely squeaks round the edges of my blackout curtains.

I’m wide awake. It’s morning.

8:00 is, to me, a criminal time to be awake on a weekend, considering it's earlier than I’m up for work most days. Still, I have a mission to see to; after a cup of coffee at least.

“Who loves Trent Rowing?” 

That is what I have set to find out.

My friend picks me up in his rustbucket and we’re off to East City. Eiichi Ohtaki’s “君は天然色” hums through the warm, crackly speakers of the car, the stereo being just about the only thing in it which miraculously still works. 

After a brief stop at a local book store and a chin-wag with the proprietor about the nature of the chaos we are about to witness, we come to the realization that neither of us has cash on us, a problem given the quaint coffee shop we were looking to patronize doesn’t accept anything else by way of payment. 

Thus, it’s back to that perennial haunt of mine, The Only Café, though this time ordering a breakfast platter in lieu of a sandwich, and refraining from drinking alcohol before the clock even strikes noon.

“So,” I ask the barkeep pouring me a steaming cup of coffee, “Is it going to be busy tonight—what with Head of the Trent?”

She looks at me curiously as she pours a heavy glug of milk into the steaming mug. “There’s something going on at Trent today?”

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. In recent years the university has withdrawn so much into itself that some locals—at this bar especially—seem to forget that anyone younger than twenty-five lives in Peterborough, let alone that there’s a university here.

Still, if one thing can be relied upon, it's that Trent students will show up this day in droves. Already as I walk the length of Hunter St. they’re beginning to gather—a flash of green here, a snap of white there suggest the presence of prospective partygoers. 

There’s a uniform of sorts tacitly established by Trent students. Whether consciously agreed-upon or not, I’m unsure, but nonetheless female undergrads overwhelmingly sport deep green coloured Trent crop-tops and white tennis skirts. 

The guys, meanwhile, dress in hoodies, jeans, and Sperry Topsiders. They may or may not also wear a baseball cap, often backward, on their head. Double points if it's fitted.

An abandoned beer pong table stands solemn guard on London Street in Peterborough. Photo: Evan Robins

While I stick to the white-skirt, green-shirt combination established by my inebriated peers, my skirt is calf-length and corduroy, and my shirt—which lacks the customary Trent sword logo—instead reads “Gzowski College” in a distressed display font. The shirt is from 2007. The distressed denim vest adorned in pins I wear over it is from Goddess even knows when.

The tops of white wool crew socks poke above the mouth of red leather combat boots on my feet.

I figure, to the average onlooker, I’m dressed somewhere between an errant punk and an undercover cop.

Breakfast secured, it’s off to campus to see what all the fuss is about.

The driving’s a nightmare in the immediate vicinity. Cars are parked up and down Nassau Mills Rd and Pioneer Dr. The traffic lights do little to assuage the strain on the intersection of Nassau Mills at Armour. 

We park at the municipal baseball diamond, located between Trent University’s East Bank Dr. and the Peterborough Rowing Club. The parking lot is packed with cars—large SUVs mostly—each of them loaded with passengers who, if not drunk yet, will assuredly be so shortly. 

On our way to rendez-vous at our spot in the Narrows, we pass a pair of young men best charitably described as “dudes” playing beer pong, alone, at a solitary folding table erected in the dugout.

It’s like a tableau from a particularly shit student film.

As we cross Nassau Mills Rd, and pick our way through the thigh-high shrubbery down to the edge of the canal, the demographics begin to shift. The drunk students and young alumni seem to have mostly petered off, surely gone to the Beer Garden whose din we can hear even from here, a kilometer or more across campus. 

In their stead, the average age here has increased considerably. Discounting dogs, I’m quite visibly the youngest person in attendance.

We’re just in time to watch the heat. Being a head race, HOTR is a time trial. There’s a certain amount of jostling as boats make their way down the 5km stretch of waterway, though at the end of the day it’s just about the fastest time, start to finish.

Boats must first make their way to the start line at the Parkhill Road E. swing bridge. When they do make their way back it’s twice as fast, and with considerably more sweat running down their face, chest, and shoulders.

My friend loves Trent Rowing, or at least he’s becoming a convert as my father gleefully explains the finer points of rowing technique to him. The both of them, spurred on by whatever primal mechanism spurs men to watch sports, whoop and cheer whenever a boat crabs, or a collision seems near-imminent. 

In the narrows, where no passing is allowed, crews vie for an optimal position for the sprint finish to the Faryon bridge. The University of Western Ontario team, posted up under a tent at the mouth of the canal, erupt into belting clamor whenever one of their team’s boats pass by.

Despite their being outnumbered by spectators dressed in Trent colours by at least 2:1, they drown out the cheers of any other group. The only thing louder than them is the aforementioned Beer Garden.

The Trent crews wear deep greens, setting themselves apart from the conventionally covered uniforms of other schools. Unlike the rest of the men’s teams, who might catch-all be described as “regular dudes,” the Trent men’s crews near-universally sport pornstaches and mullets.

Seeing this, I wonder to myself if Peterborough is not merely the Portland, OR of Southern Ontario.

As we sit for the next several hours, eating my mother’s homemade Nanaimo bars and sipping on lukewarm Diet Coke®, unbeknownst to me, my legs slowly cook to a seemly shade of pink.

We leave before the last of the heats go through, having been thoroughly sun exposed in the interim nonetheless. The drive back from Trent campus to downtown is riddled with predictable bedlam. 

Bedsheets hang from student houses. Litter is strewn across sidewalks—at least so much more so than is normally in Peterborough that it prompts me to take notice.

On Parkhill, we pass stragglers from the Trent Central Student Association’s clean-up event at Catherine Parr Traill college. As we will come to see, their efforts have yielded precious little in the way of results.

As we approach London Street, the culprits become all the more obvious. 

Trent students swarm London Street in downtown Peterborough, ON, while Arthur co-editors look on. Photo: Evan Robins

A police cruiser and a prisoner transport van block traffic southbound down George Street. They’re diverting all cars into the left lane, creating a chokepoint right where the arterial road intersects with London. Police cars and Ambulances line the block between London and McDonnel. 

A pickup truck sits shunted sideways on George with its fender caved in. They’re lifting a girl into the ambulance on a stretcher. 

My colleagues and I observe all this quietly. Trent students swarm every which way, weaving between parked cars and darting into the street in front of traffic. We are very much aware that the fact of our age, and our presence alone mark us to any observers as belonging to this group.

The fact my colleague is wearing a Trent University sweater probably doesn’t help much, either.

“You know,” my friend observes. “At things like these you always see a whole bunch of students you’ve never seen before, ever.”

“You’ll never see them again after this, either,” I add. 

The ambulance they’ve loaded the girl into pulls away. Behind it, the cars remain backed up by the dozens. A few drivers are beginning to play fast and loose with the horn.

We cross the lights at McDonnel street, stopping on the other side so I might snap a few pictures of the lunacy. The police are funneling students into a particular section of London street, between George and Aylmer. We decide it’s time we got a better look.

We give a wide berth to the parking lot of the abandoned St. Vincent de Paul in which Trent students are ripping bowls and downing mickeys, often only moments before staggering to the curb to up-chuck the contents of their guts on the asphalt. Instead, we ramble down McDonnel with a mind to cut back down at Aylmer. 

It seems like many have the same idea. We’re greeted with a consistent trickle of students from the townhomes and duplexes that litter the street. At the intersection they congregate on the sidewalk in the dozens. Drivers make known their frustrations at students brazenly flouting the red lights, often with a screech of brakes followed shortly by the blare of a horn. 

Still, what we’ve seen thus far can scarce prepare us for what greets us as we turn the corner. If George at was busy, Aylmer is the real deal.

Students mill about three thick on the sidewalk. Pushing through them proves an obstacle course in its own right. Homeowners look on incredulously from balconies and covered porches at the rabble assembled; yelling over one another, hitting Elfbars®, holding tallboys of Twisted Tea® generally tossed to the sidewalk once empty. 

No fewer than three ambulances line the block on either side of London. The same number of police SUVs block the street on the other side.

The closer we get to the London Street epicenter the louder the raucous din. Bodies press in on all sides, like trying to navigate a particularly indulgent collision-active crowd during the prestige tour segment of a Naughty Dog game. On the corner, a cop is yelling at students to “go around” if they want to access London Street. He points in a vague direction further down Aylmer. 

He and his buddies are dressed in tac gear and Oakleys like they’re the secret fucking service.

I ask how long this has been going on. 

“From about 12:00,” he tells me. I try and follow up the question, but his attention is quickly stolen by a visibly drunk student trying to push past him. 

“If you want to get in, you have to go around,” the cop tells him.

“But it’s right there!” the inebriate protests. 

“You have to go around,” the officer repeats.

“What if I don’t want to?”

Suddenly, three more cops are upon him, moving to physically block his access to the street. 

“Look,” the cop intones, “this would all just be easier if you just went around.”

“What happens if I don’t?”

The inebriate stumbles forward. We take this opportunity to take our leave. 

A short walk around the block brings us to a lane off London Street. Students line it from the porches and sidewalks, many smoking from improvised pipes and bongs, even more drinking openly and tossing the empties to the street.

There’s nary a garbage can in sight, and certainly little in the way of any organized attempt to remedy the detritus strewn about the block. We pass a woman taking her dog out to have a shit, who tells us she’s none too impressed.

I tell her I write for the student paper. She tells me to give ‘em hell. 

Students stand on the porch roof of a London Street residence during street parties on Head of the Trent weekend. Photo: @trentpartylife

Even the most debauched, rambunctious, immediately post-lockdown punk shows of which I’ve had the displeasure of attending fail to compare to the fracas on London Street. While there’s decidedly less violent moshing, the students display a similar level of concern for their venue. The tossing of both drinks and words too vulgar for even I to print is reminiscent entirely of the behaviour of sad, unshowered, middle-aged men at a show to see a band called something like “Dick Stomper,” or “Smegma.”

The road is a sea of green and white. 

Smoke drifts from somewhere in the centre of the throng, tinted a noxious colour of green. 

The entire block smells of weed and tire fire.

My colleagues and I stand in awe of it all, internalizing this fresh sensorial hell. Every way one looks there is something new of interest—guys jumping off a second-storey roof onto folding tables, girls retching in bushes by the sides of the road, cops ambling around watching the whole thing and laughing to each other. 

The demographic is overwhelmingly young, able, and white. The men are tall and broad in the shoulders. The women are pretty in the thin, pallid manner of runway models. I am out of place in this world, conscious of the fact that I am marked as outsider by the fact that I am not 5’2”, blonde haired and blue eyed. 

A visceral turn builds in my stomach at the whiteness of the whole affair.

Perhaps there is only room for pretty people in partyland. 

Still, perhaps, by some transitive property, we participants therein are leant a modicum of beauty. Perhaps, standing here on London Street, I am become a 5’2” bio girl, if only briefly.

Somehow, however, I doubt it, especially given that this debauchery coincides with a day of solemn reflection on the ravages of colonial violence. Such indifference is not a seemly look. It is a mark of privilege to be able to not care about this, of all days.

The contrast of such pretty people amongst such a slew of garbage and litter reminds me of a Barbie left on the sidewalk. What once was beautiful is revealed to be plastic. The rest, as they say, is merely dross.

As we watch a small gaggle of female students approach a pair of police officers. After a brief exchange, the cops grin, nod, and wrap their arms around the womens’ midriffs as they pose for a selfie. 

Watch out girls! There’s a certain statistic about 40% of Police Officers you should probably know!

Later, we’ll see video footage of cops posing with more women on @trentpartylife. We’ll see photos of them grinning with men dressed in banana costumes, men who—in the very next slide of the same Instagram post—can be seen slapping the ass of a woman in a video. We’ll see video of an on-duty officer signing a female student’s bare back with a Sharpie. 

One of these posts is captioned “some nice police officers 🤝”

In this moment, I’m reminded of a quote from a favourite video essayist of mine: “some days, the pigs barbecue themselves.”

A Peterborough Police officer in stab vest and hi-vis vest, his sidearm clearly visible, signs the back of a Trent University student with a Sharpie. Photo: @trentpartylife

As we make our way to leave, spiritually impoverished by the things we have seen, we see Peterborough Chief of Police Stuart Betts approaching in white-button down, ceremonial cap, and stab vest.

My colleague quips that he’s probably here to host a press conference.

We leave, exhausted from even the short amount of time we had spent there, to sit on my friend’s porch and drink lukewarm Diet Coke. The din from London street still scores our conversation five blocks away. I confess, I’ve no clue extroverts do it. 

In the evening we go to the rugby game. 

On Symons campus, Trent University is playing the Royal Military College. The Trent men schmuck those army boys.

It’s one of the worst behaved rugby games I’ve ever seen.

It’s not students this time, however. The students cheer, and bleat, but nobody rushes the field. Nobody interrupts the game by streaking. There aren’t even, to our knowledge, any students wearing chest paint.

Instead it's the players who muster a staggering half dozen yellow cards. At one point in the game each team is down two players a side. Several scraps break out at times throughout the match, punches thrown like it’s ice hockey, or some other more conventionally boarish sport.

It’s no regatta, that’s for sure, but my colleague seems to enjoy it. In rowing there is, after all, decidedly less opportunity for grown men to beat the ever-living shit out of each other.

I wonder what, if anything, this says about the university.

Leaving the rugby game, I find myself daydreaming about The Purge.

As we reconvene on my friend’s porch, my colleagues and I commiserate about the day’s events. It has been a long and weary slog to get here. One of my colleagues lights a cigarette as we sit bathed in the sickly glow of the porch light. 

Four hours later, and the sound of London Street still scores the sound of conversation.

It will continue to do so for hours to come.

Part 3: What Would the Community Think?

They say that there are three sides to every breakup—yours, theirs, and the truth.

While I have my reservations about the utility of this framing, there is one perspective I’ve thus far neglected in which I find myself interested—Peterborough’s.

The response from the citizens of Peterborough towards the antics of Trent students has—in the years since the start of the pandemic, and coinciding with my time here—ranged from patronizing, to derisive, to anger and outrage, to seemingly despondent resignation to the occupation, by undergraduate students, of their beloved town. 

Few places prove a better place to see this in action than Reddit.

In the days after HOTT a number of posts began to populate the subreddit r/peterborough, pointing out different facets of the weekend’s events. Some derided the behaviour of students, some questioned the wisdom of hosting events on the same day as NDTR, others still simply asked what the hell was going on.

More telling, perhaps, is the amount of comments on each post. Like sharks to chum, online Peterborians flocked to post their opinions on the weekend’s proceedings, more often than not descending into arguments with other subreddit users in the comments section shortly thereafter.

The tone was, on the whole, judgemental. While not wholly condemnatory, the overwhelming “vibe” from r/peterborough and much of its user base was largely that of “do better.”

A post on r/peterborough depicts the aftermath of the London Street homecoming party the morning after.

Not only do Peterborians seem to, charitably, reserve little love for Trent Rowing, many of them seem disillusioned with Trent students in general

Trent University, for their part, held off on comment on the matter until their October 13th Board of Governors meeting, when VP External Relations & Development, Julie Davis, delivered a report to the board on the matter.

Davis compared the events of HOTT weekend positively to those which happened concurrently in Kingston—the aforementioned “at least we’re better than Queen’s” argument. She went on to say that while the previous year’s events represented a “further escalation of what was happening around,” which culminated with the “unfortunate” flipping of a private security car, (a thing which I implicity predicted, on the record, would happen the year before) it was “impossible” to say for sure whether or not this year’s actually represented an increase in the number of Trent students involved in such off campus parties.

I might contend that it does indeed prove rather hard to quantify such things in the absence of any attempt on the part of Trent to do so, though while the university demonstrated no effort to count the number of students involved, VP Davis seemed extremely confident that the majority of those on London Street wearing Trent University merchandise were not, in fact, Trent students.

Immediately after detailing the fact that once again, despite Trent’s best efforts to shake its head in disapproval, Davis suggested that some, if not most, of those on London Street were local high school students or Fleming College attendees. 

She offered no citation in service of this claim.

It’s safe to say that Trent University is uncomfortable with admitting any wrongdoing in, or even responsibility towards the behaviour of students surrounding an event specifically conducted in their name. 

The Board of Governors provided a laundry list of reasons why Trent wasn’t solely responsible for the conduct of students that weekend. 

That students were partying off-campus meant it wasn’t because of HOTT, it was just fortuitously coincidental. That it was happening downtown meant that those weren’t Trent students, just a rogue element from Fleming College, or the local high schools masquerading in Trent Nursing hoodies for some unknowable reason. That the events coincided with National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was not a failure on the university’s part, but rather a decision by the Peterborough Rowing Club in which the university’s hands proved tied. That nonetheless they decided to schedule consumption-based events on campus, was not them condoning and outright profiting off of said decision was not them demonstrating a supreme lack of respect for the Indigenous students and community members, but rather an effort to draw student’s away from off-campus parties.

All likely claims, I’m sure (Editor’s Note: sarcasm), not that they actually change the fact that students are only in Peterborough because of Trent.

It’s the same story in university towns across Ontario—Kingston, London, Hamilton—and many of those municipalities are more than happy to point the finger at the universities when things get out of hand. When a city’s 18–25 population is directly correlated to enrollment at its local university, that university exerts a profound effect on the culture and politics of its host municipality. Why then, is it, that such an effect does not equally confer a profound responsibility on the part of the university towards the city in question?

In the entirety of the BoG’s discussion of HOTT weekend, few mentions were made of the rowing itself. Despite it being the nominal raison d’être for the weekend as a whole, the regatta proved overshadowed by the Beer Garden, the attempts to preserve Trent student’s “fun,” and the success of the ancillary aspects of the event.

While it's hardly surprising that a university as steeped in political double-speak as Trent left NDTR as largely an afterthought in the HOTT report, it surprised even a cynic like me that they made no pretensions of giving a shit about—much less demonstrating any love for—Trent Rowing.

Shouldn’t, after all, the university who partially organizes the regatta, who fosters a rowing team as one of its crown jewels, whose President is so enamoured with watersports that it has become the most played out joke among everyone (including we at Arthur) to poke fun at him and his insipid kayak, at least pretend to love their rowing team?

The mask, in this instance, feels like it is in the process of slipping, and what is underneath may well prove uglier than even the callous behaviour displayed thus far.

A Trent student, bearing a Champlain College move-in day sign and straight rippin’ a vape, bud, crosses a street behind the Y-Lofts in downtown Peterborough. Photo: @trentpartylife

At the start of this section of our narrative I elected to call this “a breakup.” I called it this because I think, like most breakups, what Head of the Trent is most emblematic of is a series of longstanding resentments and discontents upon which people are finally beginning to act.

It is a breakup of the university and the downtown, an event fueling discontent among the citizens of Peterborough fast turning into outright resentment toward the presence of Trent and its students in their community. 

It is a breakup of the university and its students, a demographic—as I’ve previously suggested—fundamentally disenchanted with post-secondary education as both aim and institution. 

Moreover, it would seem a breakup of the university and itself.

While still a “small” school in comparison to many of the post-secondary institutions with which it finds itself competing, Trent has long telegraphed its intentions to change that. Much though they sell themselves on the notions of cozy collegiality, Trent has, just this year, passed the 10 000 mark for undergraduate enrollment.

Along with this incremental, though no less steady, increase has come a number of precipitous changes: among other things the push towards internationalization, and, for the first time in its history, a tuition discrepancy between in-province and out-of-province domestic students. These are, of course, by-products of earlier policy decisions. 

The widespread implementation of austerity measures by Mike Harris’ Provincial Conservative government in the 1990s, which divested funding from publicly-funded post-secondary education and instead provided subsidies for capital projects, incentivized privatization and the pursuit of profit above all else, creating a climate of education as industry as opposed to an end in-and-of itself.

Trent University is only nominally the same institution it was at the inception of Head of the Trent as an annual tradition. In the years since, it has shifted, corroded, and ossified, becoming something materially different in its aims and operations which yet bears the name under which it was conceived, albeit as something else entirely.

The problem with doing any sort of material analysis of the university in this vein is that it serves largely to collapse the disparate problems of Trent University into one monolithic amalgam born of a common source. As with so many things at Trent, one can trace each issue—the smallest trickle in the delta—to a series of monumental decisions at its source.

Like a sort of inverted butterfly theory, a handful of people and decisions have fundamentally shifted the economic practices, and, in so doing, the culture of Trent University. 

It becomes exhausting to talk about any of these contemporary issues precisely because so many of them are the result of decisions made well before our time, which invariably rear their head when talking about any issue at Trent today. The corporatization, the gutting of the college system, the retreat from the city of Peterborough, while Head of the Trent may have helped to obscure all of these pieces of Trent’s history for the last several decades, it remains nonetheless emblematic of all these issues. Head of the Trent is—if anything—merely one head of the Hydra.

To understand the “truth” of Head of the Trent, then, is to understand not what lies between the differing accounts of Head of the Trent—as debauched street party, alumni Homecoming, rowing regatta, day of mourning—but rather what lies in the synthesis of it.

It is, to me at least, deeply sad to see Trent as an institution continue to limp along as it is; to see it continue to hold up a rowing team for which it displays little in the way of actual care as its figurehead to legitimize selling beer to people out of a tent in a parking lot.

The “truth,” of Head of the Trent, as I see it, is all of these truths simultaneously.

Head of the Trent is not one thing or the other, it is all of these things at once—the sum of its parts, the product of its own internally competing discourses; scandal, spectacle, and teen age riot, all at the same time.

So where, then, can Trent go from here? If Head of the Trent is a problem, what—if anything—is to be done about it?

As I see it, the university is presented with two options.

The first is to somehow reconcile Head of the Trent and all of its accrued baggage—for both administration and the student body to find it in their hearts to fall in love again with Trent Rowing, and chart a path forward for varsity Rowing which recognizes varsity athletic excellence, while also respecting the dignity of Indigenous students on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Such a task might seem monumental, though I truly believe it to be possible, if admittedly daunting in its scope.

Everyone, for the most part, involved herein deserves better. Indigenous students certainly deserve to not have their ceremonies deferred, their needs disregarded, and their protests ignored on account of Homecoming events, all while the university uses the existence of its Indigenous Studies program as a reason upon which to sell the “Trent Experience” to successive classes of Indigenous students.

Trent Rowing deserves to not have to row on a day of solemn reflection, or be implicated in the organizing of events which will inevitably make them the subject of ire. The rowing team deserves to be recognized for athletic accomplishments, as opposed to all the other shit that bogs down the weekend. 

Alumni deserve to have their Trent experience meaningfully reflected in their homecoming, as opposed to standing in a parking lot, though conversely, undergrads deserve to feel safe on the campus they call home at the same time.

Moreover, the citizens of Peterborough should not have to worry about having their lives disrupted, and residences damaged or vandalized on account of undergraduates who themselves rarely have a stake in the community proper.

Trent would deserve far less criticism, scrutiny, and outright vitriol were they to actually take these matters seriously, as opposed to deferring responsibility and denying the scale of these issues wherever possible.

However, this would require a lot of effort on the part of administration—not just to appease the City of Peterborough and its residents, or Indigenous Students, or any of the dissenting groups—but to win over the student body once more.

The endemic partying in downtown on HOCO speaks to the fact that students don’t seem to care about Trent as a school, let alone a cultural institution. If the university, then, would like to see any meaningful change in the culture and community it fosters, it needs to make itself into a place that people actually want to be.

It is significant that Trent University still has enough goodwill among its alumni to maintain Homecoming as a tradition. Not all schools are able to accomplish this. My mother, a Queen’s graduate, outright refuses to attend Queen’s Homecoming on account of the university’s continual failure to address the terrible behaviour and rampant sexual predation endemic to the party culture of that school.

While Trent still has alumni who want to come back, it is fast becoming the type of school which might not. I for one, despite pursuing my MA here, have frankly no desire to return to Trent in any way once I’m finally rid of the place.

While many alumni speak reverently about their time at Trent spent haunting college bars, attending shitty DIY performances, and making merry on the banks of the Otonabee river, that is not the type of Trent experience I have had in my time here.

If anything, that is the type of experience I have found elsewhere in the Peterborough community—a community populated with Trent alumni, creatives, and radicals trying to eke out their own spaces in a town where the university and the students it fosters are increasingly less engaged in being the cultural beacons they once were.

If Trent wants to continue to hold the image of the small-time, folksy, progressive liberal arts school it either claims or deludedly thinks itself to be, upper administration must take actual, meaningful steps towards reconciling with the City they’ve largely become apathetic towards, and not only supporting, but actively engaging the student body they bring in.

The second, more cynical approach, would be to do away with HOTT entirely. 

What with the annual outrage, the no-doubt exorbitant costs of mounting the whole affair, and the facts that students don’t really seem to care about the regatta one way or another, Trent could easily decide the entire thing is more trouble than it's worth. 

Shut it down, pack it up, and find other ways to pump alumni for all their money’s worth. At the very least it’ll mean less emails for Leo about drunk students pissing on people’s porches. 

I don’t want it to be this way. I would adore attending a school which actually loves Trent Rowing. However, as it stands, that hardly seems to be the case.

The bottom line is what we have isn’t working, and continuing to do as Trent has done for the last three years would, at this point, seem ill-advised. As anyone having been in such a place can likely tell you, breakup sex is generally far better in theory than it ever proves to be in practice.

Who loves Trent Rowing?

As far as I can tell, nobody. 

Nobody, insofar as no one, in my observation, holds unconditional praise for the regatta, Head of the Trent, or any of the things it presently represents.

While in brief moments the spectacle of it all does become genuinely affecting, it’s never not a bit bittersweet. Even the best moments of this year’s HOTT weekend were deservedly overshadowed by NDTR. By the Sunday, seeing limp banners sun-bleached and weather hung from balconies, and crushed cans of White Claw on the streets had considerably soured my mood.

I don’t know if this relationship can be salvaged, let alone whether it should be at all. Ultimately, that feels like it is not my place to decide. What it requires is a union of common ideas, a commitment not just from upper administration, but from the community at Trent and beyond, to imagine a new future for HOTT which is actually accommodating of all the students and demographics that Trent professes to welcome with open arms.

To that end, maybe no one can love Trent Rowing until such time as we all do.

It would seem an insurmountable task, perhaps, but aren’t such things worth it when it comes to true love?

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