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Open Letter to Dr. Colin Dodds, SMU President, by Stella Lord

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
The Halifax Infants Home on Tower Road faces possible demolition.  As a first gesture, to demonstrate respect for women's history and their early activism in Halifax St. Mary's University should reconsider this decision.  Photo credit Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia
The Halifax Infants Home on Tower Road faces possible demolition. As a first gesture, to demonstrate respect for women's history and their early activism in Halifax St. Mary's University should reconsider this decision. Photo credit Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia

Open Letter to Colin Dodds, President of Saint Mary’s University

Dear Dr. Dodds,

As an adjunct professor and former part time faculty member in Women's Studies at Saint Mary’s University, as well as a social justice advocate and member of several women's organizations, I am writing to you to let you know how disgusted I was by the ugly chant that occurred as part of recent frosh week activities at the University.  I must admit, however, that while I was disturbed and shocked by the chant, I wasn’t terribly surprised.

Like several women I  have spoken to about the issue, most of us understand that the incident had its roots in deeper socio-cultural problems related to sexism, gender inequality and yes, misogyny in society that now finds particularly disturbing and nasty manifestations amongst some youth which, unfortunately, are not limited to those involved in the frosh activities at SMU. 

At the same time, I find it rather hard to believe that after five years of using this chant, university staff (especially those closely involved with frosh week) were not aware of it or of the Student Association’s previous involvement in promoting it.  And as I am sure you are aware, there have been other sexist and sometimes ugly incidents at SMU that because they were not as brazenly vulgar have not garnered the same degree of media attention, but were nevertheless still problematic for a university that says it espouses the values of equality and diversity.  Such incidents have served to reinforce the jock-oriented reputation that the University already has in the community--an image by the way, that some university administrators and the SMU Student Association in particular, have at times seem to cultivate.   

As a (now retired) teacher of Women’s Studies at the University for over fifteen years, I am aware that the University administration has not done as much to foster a woman-friendly environment as it might. The university, which initially extended support to Women’s Studies, has not promoted or supported this discipline or women’s sports teams as much as I believe it should.  After cuts to the women’s hockey team two years ago, it was only after protests from SMU alumna, female students and others that the team is still in business; it took years before any kind of gender equity was recognized within the Student Union, and even longer before female students were able to found a women’s centre. There was also the ugly incident in which SMUSA supported a radical anti-choice group to come to campus to promote the idea that abortion was like the holocaust and pro-choice supporters like Nazis, amounting to what in my opinion was hate-speech towards pro-choice women on campus.  Female students protesting the rally were vilified and felt unsupported by the University.

As this lack of support and incidents like the chant pile up, perhaps the University needs to be more cognisant and concerned about what appears to be the development of a more aggressive culture of male entitlement that fosters disrespect for women, women’s equality, feminism, and for women’s achievements that goes well beyond ‘jockism’. 

The SMU administration must demonstrate that it is part of the solution and not part of the problem.  You and your colleagues need to ensure that the campus is a safer for women and a more respectful and woman-friendly place. 

The President’s Council you have established is a positive beginning.  In the meantime, I hope that you will deliver a strong message to the University community and especially to the Student Association that SMU will no longer tolerate this kind of activity and that the administration will work to make the university a much more woman-friendly place to live, study and teach.

The Council must apply a clear-sighted gender lens to the institution and all its activities and after consultation with members of the university community, especially Women’s Studies faculty and those connected to the Women’s Centre, you and your administrative and faculty colleagues must commit to acting on its recommendations to improve the situation. This will be hard and it will take time and patience.  Moreover, action on Council recommendations will likely take several weeks, if not months.  

In the meantime, restoring and re-purposing the old Halifax Infant's home on campus that you are considering tearing down would go a long way towards demonstrating respect for women's history and their early activism in Halifax, as well as SMU's intention to foster a more woman-friendly culture on campus and even beyond.  So I’m pleased to hear that you have put a hold on the demolition of the building while its future is reconsidered. 

When I taught a course on Women in Canadian Society some years ago, I spent the whole of the first term on women’s history.  This not only opened students’ eyes to how women lived and worked in the past—sometimes in very hard conditions—but also demonstrated women’s resilience and their determination to strive for change. I found this approach gave young women (and men) who often through no fault of their own were ignorant of the role women have played in Canadian history, an appreciation for their female and feminist forebears, and a  new understanding of how important it is to continue to work for transformative change.

The Old Infant’s home sits on the corner of the campus but faces outwards towards the community.  A restored, re-purposed buiding could be a place that meets the social needs of young women, as well as a vibrant place where students, faculty and community members come together to uphold and foster the values of equality, diversity and civic engagement that the University says it espouses by learning how to put these values into action on campus and in the broader community.

This would only be a start, but it could be an important step towards achieving what I hope will be your future transformative vision and goal.

Thank you for listening.

Yours sincerely,
Stella Lord, Ph.D


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