Women’s Studies and Feminist Club Statement regarding Pro-Life Groups on Campus

Mental Health Initiatives not prioritized in wake of disturbing images across campus

On Wednesday, April 6, 2016, representatives of WSF met with several University of Calgary administrators, including Head of Security Brian Sembo, Vice-Provost Student Experience Susan Barker, University of Calgary legal counsel Angela Jackson, and Associate Vice-President (Risk) Rae Ann Aldridge. The topic of this meeting was the recent resurgence of pro-life protesters on the University of Calgary campus.

For those who are unaware, for many years, the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) sponsored a pro-life display called the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) on University of Calgary grounds, with space booked by a pro-life student club. These displays attempted to compare a woman’s right to bodily autonomy to various atrocities throughout history. As part of this display, large billboards were erected featuring graphic images of victims of American slavery, the Rwandan genocide, and the Holocaust, alongside images which GAP claims represent aborted fetuses. During the 2014-2015 academic year, GAP was not present on campus, but recently in 2016 there have been several instances of CCBR protesters showing up with handheld versions of the signs used by GAP. These protesters are not students, staff, or otherwise affiliated with the University of Calgary, and are not booking space through the Use of University Facilities for Non-Academic Purposes which governs how groups are allowed to use University of Calgary property. As well, they have shown blatant disregard for conduct within a space, including actively distributing materials in Mac Hall, which is prohibited. Despite this, campus security has not removed these protesters from campus. There have also been a number of complaints from students who report feeling distressed by being confronted with these images without warning. Additionally, WSF has had multiple reports from students and staff who attempted to complain to security about the CCBR’s displays, and security did not take any notes during such reports.

WSF requested a meeting with the persons listed above to discuss the issue, at which time we were made aware of several factors which bind the University of Calgary’s hands with regards to these incidents. Due to its loss of a lawsuit, the University’s campus is considered a Charter-protected area, meaning that the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed by those who are protesting on campus. What this means is that the University is unable to remove any form of expression based solely on its content. The University is, however, free to mediate the venues in which expression is allowed, so long as it does so evenly regardless of the content of that expression. One of the primary concerns that WSF brought up was the fact that CCBR is not booking their protests via the University’s booking mechanism. In response, the University has stated they are currently in talks with CCBR’s legal representation on this topic. Hopefully CCBR will start following the University’s booking policies, at which point we will be able to receive greater notice as to when they will be on campus so that we can mobilize a counter-demonstration in response. CCBR has also shown an indifference to space booking procedures on Campus by appearing inside MacEwan Hall, which is independently operated by the Students’ Union via MacEwan Conference and Events Centre (MCEC). In communications with WSF, SU VP Operations and Finance Sarah Pousette has clarified that CCBR’s displays contravene the SU’s Acceptable Displays policy and that during this incident, security was asked to escort CCBR out of Mac Hall, but did not do so and directed all complaints to the University’s communications department.

During WSF’s meeting with University of Calgary administration, they were supportive of our concerns, explaining what the University’s current legal situation is, agreeing to use the University’s Twitter account to warn students when CCBR is on campus, to improve the warnings posted by security about CCBR in order to be more specific, apologizing for the instances where security failed to take official statements about CCBR, and promising to release a UToday story explaining the current state of affairs regarding CCBR’s displays. The UToday article was posted on Monday, April 11th and can be viewed here.

While WSF was initially reassured that the University understood our concerns and our position, we were disappointed to read the UToday article and felt that the University was not addressing these concerns. It is critical to note that this is not a matter of being offended. This is a question of security and safety. WSF joins the University of Calgary in encouraging “free inquiry, open debate and diversity of opinions”, but not at the cost of the mental wellbeing of those who have been subjected to violent, sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic hate speech without their consent. The abrasive display of CCBR’s graphic imagery also has implications for the mental health of students, staff, and other members of the campus community. It is WSF’s position that open and thoughtful dialogue is possible, even without shocking, inflammatory, and blatantly false imagery. CCBR states openly on their website that they are attempting to trigger traumatic incidents in those who view their materials. Presenting these images to those who have not consented to view them, and who are not expecting to view them, has created distress and anguish on campus, which has implications for both physical and mental health. This issue does not only affect women who have had abortions, but is also potentially traumatic for students whose lives or families may have been directly affected by war, genocide, or the Holocaust. Allowing these displays to continue puts students at risk of harm, and runs counter to the vision of the University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy, whose vision includes “Align[ing] policies and procedures with the vision for promoting mental health on our campus.”

In conclusion, WSF disagrees with the goals and purposes of CCBR, and condemns their current tactic of displaying harmful images at the University of Calgary and other local post-secondary institutions. While we recognize that the University of Calgary has their hands tied by the legal precedent, we also feel that by accepting CCBR’s framing of this as an issue of freedom of expression, they are not doing enough to address student concerns regarding CCBR’s displays, and that their current level of action does not fall in line with the Campus Mental Health Strategy and other mental health initiatives such as UFlourish and UCalgaryStrong. Open debate is a crucial hallmark of universities and free society, but purposefully causing distress to those who have not consented to engage with the topic is unacceptable and WSF will continue to demand better from University administration.

If you feel like you have been harmed by the CCBR’s displays on campus, support services are available at the following locations:

  • Peer support at the Women’s Resource Centre – MSC 482 – Monday-Friday 8:30am-4:30pm
  • Peer support at the QCentre – MSC 210 – Monday-Friday 9am-4:30pm
  • Peer support via ManUp for Mental Health – MSC 370 – Mondays and Thursdays 4:30pm-7:00pm
  • Distress Centre 24-hour Crisis Line – 403-266-4357

If you experience physical or verbal harassment from CCBR, or if you notice they are in any way violating the law or University of Calgary policy, please contact security at 403-220-5333. If you would like to complain to the University about CCBR’s presence, please contact comms@ucalgary.ca.  If you would like to share your experience regarding CCBR with the Women’s Studies and Feminist Club so that we may better advocate with the University of Calgary administration, please do so here.

WSF reached out to the University of Calgary for comment, but has not heard back at time of publication.