As I make my way past rows upon rows of tables littered with the most kawaii pastel plushies, figurines, Pocky, and anime-themed Etsy products, I push through a crowd of hundreds populated by every sort of creature imaginable—including a disproportionate number of Sailor Scouts and Pokémon. I arrive at the group gathered within the main hall of the Ontario Science Centre for the "So You Think You Can K-Pop" competition and finally find a lineup of people waiting to enter a talk called "Intro to Political Activism," presumably in hopes of discovering an exciting method of discussing our government with the sounds of high-pitched, adorable-sounding music still emanating nearby.
After the packed Game of Thrones Tinfoil Conspiracy Theory workshop bursts out of the studio at 5 PM (Jon Snow lives!), I take my seat toward the back and watch as the room fills up with about 30 various creatures: a demon hunter from Diablo III; the pink-haired, headphone-wearing Super Sonico; a kigurumi Stitch; Mordecai, the chilled-out bluejay from Regular Show; and a slew of characters I don't recognize as anything specific, most donning some combination of brightly coloured hair, Tripp pants, and armfuls of kandi.
An orange dick-shaped balloon leftover from a previous workshop is swaying on the wall in the air conditioning as someone removes what looks like a giant Tesla coil from the room. Discussion leaders Christopher Lambe, from Youth Vote Canada, and Nahum Mann, of Currant, both wearing nondescript outfits punctuated by geeky accessories and Anti-Bill C-51 buttons, introduce themselves as former Occupy Movement members. They say that, during that form of protest, "Nobody listened to our voices; they wrote us off as hippies or methheads." And then, like clockwork, the discussion immediately turns to hacktivism.
The bizarre combination of anime characters and political discussion actually seems pretty normal, considering the setting: Atomic Lollipop, a Toronto festival in its fifth year that's held at the Ontario Science Centre and dubbed by its founders as the "Woodstock of Geek." A-pop is not your typical anime-geek convention; the vibe is somewhat reminiscent of Burning Man, which contributes to its attracting a massive number of ravers.
Among the typical debauchery of crafts, cosplay, and dancing to electronic music, however, I found something much deeper lurking beneath the surface: a serious mandate to get attendees involved in IRL society.
In a programming series aptly named "Get Off Your Ass," workshops were held on entrepreneurship and collaborative large-scale art a la Burning Man, and—perhaps the most intriguing—there was also a discussion on Canadian politics.
"We want people to leave the event feeling like they gained something that they can sort of take with them and use throughout their life," Elliot Coombe, director of operations and cofounder of A-pop, tells me in an interview following the convention. "There's a lot of talk about young people generally being disillusioned, but I think that the outreach that's being done by political parties and existing organizations out there just doesn't really position the messaging in a way that it is accessible in an exciting way."
During "Intro to Political Activism," a guy in the front row eagerly asks as the first question: "What do you think of hacktivism?!" What ensues is a chat between the leaders of the workshop and a couple others with the resounding decision that, with most of the audience nodding, that, yes, it can be "really freaking useful."
It comes as no surprise that attendees at a con centred around internet culture are eager to discuss this. After all, Anonymous, the hacktivist group that recently claimed responsibility for a cyber attack on Government of Canada websites in protest of Bill C-51, derives from 4chan, a forum historically associated with anime.
Later during the panel, the facilitators will ask us what activism means to us. A guy in either plain clothes or obscure cosplay that is beyond my comprehension simply will answer "Anonymous."
One of the reasons Lambe and Mann were asked by Coombe to do the discussion was because he is also involved in political activism. He's part of the Toronto Coalition to Stop Bill C-51 and, notably, the coordinator of an event in Ottawa a few months ago where the group handed hundreds of carnations to MPs and staffers at Parliament Hill to "spread a message of love and compassion" following tension around Bill C-51 and the October 22 attack.
Bill C-51 is a major point of discussion here; after all, people who spend a lot of time on the internet are understandably concerned about surveillance.
Lambe and Mann explain that they think the real reason the government created the piece of legislation was "out of fear." They urge the crowd not to be opposed to members of the government as people, but to oppose the ideas presented in the bill. Another guy who popped in late stands against a wall dropping a few lines of his opinion, an anti-Bill C-51 button visibly present on his shirt; later, I recognize him onstage as one of the DJs, still donning his button in front of a crowd of hundreds.
"We're the ones on the internet, we're the ones surfing for stuff, we're the ones searching for knowledge," Lambe tells me at their misfit booth in the main hall during a talent show where he's handing out pamphlets. "We have this yearning for knowledge that sometimes takes us down a path that the government might not agree with."
About a quarter into the hour-long workshop, six of the most hardcore cosplayers file out in a parade of purple, pink, and blue wigs—a grim metaphor for the youth apathy that plagues Canadian politics. In the last election, voter turnout for Canadians 18-24 years old was only 39 percent—the lowest of all age groups eligible to vote.
Luckily, a shirtless, sweaty guy comes in lieu just after, likely fresh off of the dance floor. At this point, several tangential debates arise, many deriving from a Goth Lolita Catgirl and the decidedly not-so-chill Mordecai cosplayer. We talk about income inequality, student debt, the recent change in voter ID laws, First Nations issues, the role of greedy corporations. At one point, someone asks if anyone in the crowd owns their own home—not a single person raises their hand.
While discussing the differences between Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP, a heated debate arises between Lambe and Goth Lolita Catgirl about Canadian political party theory when he claims the current system is indicative of the "Dynasties and Interludes" theory.
Goth Lolita Catgirl vehemently raises her hand. She's sitting right next to me, and I glance over at her in horror, no doubt half expecting to hear some strange tumblr wormhole conspiracy theory. Instead, I hear an articulate argument.
"I have to say I really disagree with you," Catgirl says sternly, claiming she's observed in recent years that the nature of predominant political parties in Canada has morphed.
We nearly run over the allotted hour timeframe—there's a crowd of cosplayers huddled outside the studio impatiently waiting to enter for the Mad Science Fair workshop on microcontrollers.
Later, when I ask Lambe about his impression of the talk—the first he's done that wasn't in a traditional environment like a university campus—he tells me, "I had a whole plan in place, and I didn't need it because people kind of knew what they were coming into and what they were talking about, so we could actually make it more of a conversation instead of a lecture." He assures me that him and Catgirl had a deep convo following the workshop and made up.
Diana Peragine, cofounder and programming director for A-pop, says that next year they'll be moving the political activism workshop to a larger space to accommodate interest and will be expanding the Get Off Your Ass series to include panels on topics such as post-secondary education. According to Peragine, the political workshop and booth at this year's Atomic Lollipop inspired 56 people to register to vote at the event.
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