Western alum Carina Gabriele, BA’18, is one of four new national recipients of the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case, a national recognition honouring Canadians who have made outstanding contributions to the advancement of gender equity. Gabriele will receive the award in a ceremony March 8, led by Marci Ien, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth.
Gabriele began her work in gender advocacy as a women’s studies student (now gender, sexuality, and women’s studies) at Western. She was actively involved in student government — first as president of the Arts and Humanities Students Council and then as a University Student Council executive, where she organized various sexual violence prevention campaigns and implemented a menstrual equity program on campus.
Since graduating, Gabriele has continued her work to advance gender equity, working with organizations like the Courage to Act — a multi-year, national initiative to address and prevent gender-based violence on post-secondary campuses across Canada — and in her policy work at both the municipal and federal levels.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, Western News spoke to Gabriele about her award and her thoughts on gender equity, advocacy and creating safe campuses for all gender identities.
Western News: What drew you to gender studies?
Carina Gabriele: The first thing that drew me to gender studies was the people. I was so in awe of my peers, and the professors who encouraged our curiosity. During my time in the program, my peers, professors, and I built a community of trust and learning. Our professors were incredible mentors and guides through my learning process. I am forever grateful I had the opportunity to learn and grow in the women and gender studies department and to develop a life-long passion for gender equity work.
WN: You began as an advocate for gender equity in your days at Western and have since continued this after graduating. What encouraged you to pursue this advocacy, both at Western and in the years since?
CG: My academic background and the peers I met along the way played a huge role. They empowered me, we learned from each other, and they helped me develop the tools I needed to start organizing on issues of gender-based violence (GBV) and gender equity. I was, and continue to be, surrounded by feminist leaders who model what effective and compassionate leadership looks like, and I am always learning and refining my own leadership practices to ensure my advocacy is meaningful and needed by my community.
In many ways I also draw from my own lived experiences to inform my advocacy. I am someone who lives with endometriosis, and much of the work I did at Western, around menstrual equity and fighting for free menstrual products on campus, happened at the same time as I was learning how to live with my own worsening condition. I was surprised and inspired by how many people came forward then, and still today, to talk about the impact that work had on them. Knowing my own experiences informed advocacy that helped others has encouraged me to continue this work.
WN: How can individuals and groups on campus support and advocate for women?
CG: This work is not easy, and it is often extremely heavy. Every new year that students have to take up the mantle of fighting for equity on campus is another year too many. From my experience, two things are really important when supporting and advocating for gender equity on campus: 1) listening to students and 2) holding institutions accountable. Students are experts on their own needs, and campus leadership must prioritize student voices, especially Black, Indigenous, and students of colour, students with disabilities, and 2SLGBTQIA+ students. In my experience with campus GBV advocacy, students are at the forefront of the movement. However, students and survivors should not be required to carry on the labour of doing this work, which brings me to my next point: holding institutions accountable. Many issues of inequity on campus are systemic, and systemic issues require whole community responses. Institutions must hold themselves accountable to doing what is right by students and earning the trust of survivors. Everyone, from staff to faculty, to the president, and the Board of Governors, must be involved and committed to addressing inequity. That is how we will have change, and how we can continue to support and advocate for those who need it.
WN: What do you see as the greatest challenge in addressing and/or preventing gender-based and sexual violence on campus?
CG: Gender-based and sexual violence (GBSV) is entirely preventable. It is the responsibility of everyone in our community, both on and off campus, to prioritize this issue and the lives of survivors. This means that addressing campus GBSV starts before students even arrive on campus. An ongoing challenge is that we need our provincial and territorial governments to provide comprehensive health curriculums in elementary and high school that give all students the knowledge and language to understand their bodies, consent and pleasure. Campuses free of GBSV are also campuses that are free of rape culture, misogyny, racism, ableism, xenophobia and homophobia. We need to work to dismantle all systems of oppression if we are to truly address and prevent campus GBSV.
Additionally, the pandemic has exacerbated a pre-pandemic crisis for our frontline support systems, both on and off campus. If we are to address campus GBSV and support survivors, then we need our governments and academic institutions to allocate an ongoing and dedicated increase in funding and resources to frontline services. Despite all of these challenges, what gives me hope is the Courage to Act project. I’m excited for what it will do to change how we address and prevent GBSV on campuses across Canada.
WN: During your time at Western, you were actively involved in student government. As we move into election season here at Western, what advice would you give to incoming student leaders?
CG: Advice I would give to incoming student leaders is to never shut the door behind you. When I was a USC executive, I created the USC’s Women in House program so student leaders could see themselves represented in politics, and for them to have access to a network and resources to run their own campaigns. The whole campus community benefits from student leadership that is representative of the student body. You should always strive to make your role and the work you do accessible and meaningful for students. Always extend a ladder of opportunity to other students who want to get involved and leave the door to access these positions wider than when you entered.
WN: You are one of only four recipients of the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case, what does this award mean to you?
CG: I feel extremely honoured to receive this award and humbled to be part of a community of so many formidable leaders, both past and present, who have received this award. I am inspired every day by how many incredible people are advancing gender equity across Canada. I know so many people who are building resilient, supportive and caring communities, and they deserve to be recognized. I hope folks take away that this work cannot be accomplished by only one person. Everything I have done has required a whole community of supporters and collaborators, so I share this award with all I’ve had the honour to organize alongside, work with, and learn from.
Mary Hamilton is a third-year English and creative writing student. She serves as alumni relations commissioner for the Arts and Humanities Student Council.