No violation over Reunion Weekend controversy

Following an investigation by Campus Community Police Service, Western found no breach of the Student Code of Conduct occurred regarding the four students photographed beneath a banner reading ‘Western Lives Matter’ in a widely circulated photograph from Reunion Weekend, Janice Deakin, Western Provost and Vice-President (Academic), told university Senate last week.

Deakin stressed the university was aware of a number of images shared by Western community members through social media, although only one shared via Instagram has come to symbolize the incident. That one image has been unfairly characterized as the lone trigger of university action, she continued.

“The response to the ‘Western Lives Matter’ incident that triggered the media release was due to information beyond the picture of the four young men,” she said. “The university did not tie its response to the four young men. I am not at liberty to say what those other things were, but they were of enough concern to the institution and to out other groups.”

Deakin continued, “I don’t know who captured that particular image and attributed that to the cause of the university’s response. But that image was one small piece or slice of a number of things – images, symbols, etc. – that were taking place. It is unfortunate that the image captured and published by others was taken to be the university’s motivation to investigate.”

Deakin neither referenced the content of the additional images nor presented them for review.

Following the wide circulation of photos via social media during Reunion Weekend, Western issued a statement, signed by Jana Luker, Associate Vice-President (Student Experience), stating that the university “does not tolerate racism” and that it “considers the ‘Western Lives Matter’ banner to be contrary to the university’s values.”

“Senior administration wants to assure the entire Western community that these types of transgressions are hurtful, disrespectful and demeaning. They do, however, provide an opportunity for further conversations with campus leaders and community partners,” the statement continued.

While some Senators decried the incident, the questions posed by two members of the governing body showcased the awkward position the university finds itself in with this issue.

Senator Kim Clarke was concerned about the possibility of the university’s investigation creating a “chilling effect on the academic lives of students” and that the university’s actions “may constitute an infringement of these students’ rights to free expression.” Senator Harry Orbach-Miller wondered how the university would use this incident, along with other similar ones, to “educate the entire campus community to increase our communal awareness to appropriately deal with sexual violence and racialized issues.”

When pressed on the “chilling effect” caused by the university’s response, Deakin pushed back.

“We walk a fine line balancing individual rights and the interests of the community,” Deakin said. “Do we ever get it right? Well, if the definition of getting it right is that everyone agrees with what we do, or everyone is satisfied with the university response, then the answer is definitely, ‘No, we never get it right.’ We are a community of thoughtful and critical and provocative people – and that is what it should be as a university community.”

Deakin called the university’s response its “best effort” given the circumstances.

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Senators unanimously approved the university’s Indigenous Strategic Plan. The plan now goes to the Board of Governors for approval. If OK’d by the Board, a Provost Task Force on the Implementation of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission recommendations and Indigenous Strategic Plan goals and priorities will be established to put the plan into action.

The plan is not silent on the issue of mandatory Indigenous courses for Western students – it is just not overly prescriptive. The plan calls for the university to “explore strategies to increase Indigenous content across undergraduate programs. (e.g. mandatory course and/or embedding Indigenous content into foundational undergraduate courses using common learning outcomes).”

Some Canadian universities – Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., and the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, among them – have committed to mandatory Indigenous course requirements for undergraduates. When questioned by Senators about a similar possibility for Western, university officials were not yet ready to commit to the idea, deferring instead to the provost’s committee on implementation.

“That is something we need to talk about. Under the leadership of our provost in the implementation phase, we will see what this is going to look like,” said Western Geography professor Chantelle Richmond, a part of the Indigenous Strategic Initiatives Committee.

Deakin continued, “This is a tremendous day. I am excited about seeing it move forward and thinking about ways we can move toward some kind of implementation. Whatever we do, needs to be consultative and needs to be done well. Through my position, and in my heart, I believe we will look hard at this and, on the advice of those who know better than us, and in consultation with those in the community, we will make Western proud of our efforts and successes.”

Western’s first-ever Indigenous Strategic Plan seeks to remedy the under-representation of Indigenous Peoples as students, professors, staff and administrators in Canada’s postsecondary education system, according to university officials.

In consultation with the Indigenous Postsecondary Education Council, Western formed an Indigenous Strategic Initiatives Committee, which has been engaging and consulting members of the campus community and local/regional First Nations communities over the past two years to develop the draft strategic plan. Western has three local First Nations communities in close proximity – Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Oneida Nation of the Thames and Munsee Delaware Nation.

The document sets down eight strategic directions for the institution, including:

  • Strengthen and build relationships with Indigenous communities;
  • Nurture an inclusive campus culture that values Indigenous peoples, perspectives and ways of knowing;
  • Enhance Indigenous students’ experience at Western;
  • Achieve excellence in Indigenous research and scholarship;
  • Excel in Indigenous teaching and learning;
  • Indigenize Western’s institutional practices and spaces;
  • Become a university of choice for Indigenous students; and
  • Increase Indigenous representation in staff and faculty complements.