Leslie Robertson on Twitter

Safe(r) Spaces & CUSA’s shortcomings

A former colleague used to begin a workshop on membership engagement with the question, “which school has the most apathetic students?” Student representatives from coast-to-coast would be quick to shout out the name of their respective institutions, all convinced that they faced a particular brand of apathy that was a tough nut to break.

“You’re all wrong,” he’d say, “because there is no such thing as apathy. If students aren’t engaged, it’s not because they’re apathetic, it’s because we have not done a good enough job mobilizing, we have failed to find ways to reach them.”

It’s a simple principle, and one that I’ve kept near whenever working on campaigns on or off campus. While there is no magic answer, blaming your shortcomings on apathy is counterproductive and does nothing to further the work that is to be done.

Whenever the latest example of Rape Culture on campuses creates a media frenzy, I witness the great shame with which students, alumni and faculty from the particular establishment internalize the event, and I’m tempted to return to that principle. Rape Culture is everywhere around us, and no one school is immune, regardless of how much good work the Student Union executives and members have engaged in to thwart its presence.

And then there’s Carleton.

When Frosh Leaders proudly strut down the street while sporting “Fuck Safe Space” tank tops, all I can do is weep for the school’s all-too-predictable descent into the poster-child of oppressive bullshit courtesy of the well-calculated right-wing takeover of the Student Union three years ago.

First some history: in 2009, Rebecca Granovsky-Larsen and Nora Loreto of the Ryerson Free Press dropped a bombshell of investigative student journalism when they exposed Conservative Party workshops given at the University of Waterloo on how to dismantle progressive Student Unions and take-down campus Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) and decertify from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). While the leaked documents were specifically from the Waterloo workshop, it was known that similar workshops were taking place throughout Ontario, with a particular emphasis on Carleton University. The lesson here is that the powers that be know that organised student movements are forces to be reckoned with, and that obstructing progressive organising on campuses is essential to the neoliberal conservative agenda.

The next year, Carleton University illegally withheld the Carleton University Student Association (CUSA) membership dues, a move that greatly hindered their ability to engage in progressive work. Which was, of course, specifically what the administration wanted. When you starve a Student Union of ressources, they are bound to stumble, which provides a perfect opening for ideological power grabs.

Fast-forward a few years and a right-leaning slate of executives led by Alexander Golovko swept the CUSA elections under the snazzily-branded name “ABC: A Better Carleton”. Once in power, Golovko’s team diligently attacked progressive forces at Carleton as if straight out of a CPC playbook.

First order of business? Demand the removal of all CFS material from the service centres and threaten to fire coordinators who fail to comply. What sort of material are we talking about here? Oh, y’know, buttons and swag with slogans like ‘No Means No‘, ‘Challenge Transphobia‘, and ‘End the Blood Ban‘. Material created and distributed with the purpose of tackling sexual assault and campus discrimination.

Next? Gutting CUSA’s Campus Discrimination policy that aimed to create safer spaces on campus. Oh, and plotting to schedule the meeting when opponents to such measures could not be present.

Then in 2013, Golovko and co. took a lesson from the University Administrators that helped get them elected by withholding funding from their campus PIRG and Food Collective.

They further refused to take action when hate speech was scribbled on a “free-speech wall”, choosing rather to condemn the actions of a student who took it upon himself to tear down the wall.

Lastly, Golovko also voted in favour of increasing tuition fees.

With all of this, it’s easy to understand why many have speculated that the ABC dynasty is nothing more than puppets for Carleton University President Roseann Runte.

I mean, not that they are really tying to hide it.

So when images like those circulated today emerge, it’s more than another atrocious case of Rape Culture on campus. It’s a clear example of the culture of dudebro impunity that has been consciously propelled by the last three years of CUSA executives.

“Fuck Safe Space” is Alexander Golovko’s legacy. It is what happens when campus administrators interfere in student union elections to prop up non-combattive representatives. It is what happens when Conservative Party workshops and guidebooks on right-wing takeovers of Student Unions ripple through our schools. And it is absolutely shameful.

But what do you expect from a University that responded to a lawsuit from a student who had been sexually assaulted on campus by arguing that she had not done enough to protect herself, and later threatened a campus activist with a potential lawsuit for denouncing their actions? It’s why campuses need combative Student Unions that raise hell, not empty shills that do nothing but the administration’s bidding.

For Carleton students reading this, a “Carleton Students United for Safe(r) Spaces” group has emerged on Facebook, and I’d encourage those of you interested in building more inclusive spaces on your campus and in your Student Union to get involved in its activities.

For a list of ABC’s transgressions through January 2013, see The Leveller’s summary of their shadiness.

Oh, and Golovko now works for Carleton University. Surprise.