Katrina Clarke | August 26, 2014 | National Post
Taylor Mann recalls moving onto Queen’s University campus five years ago as a freshman. Engineering students, dyed purple, lined the streets surrounding his car and slammed their leather jackets on the ground.
It was intimidating, but he was sold.
“It really started the Queen’s experience off with basically a bit of a bang … in a way that was cool and gave you a sense of what was happening on campus,” he said.
Mr. Mann said he hasn’t seen the engineering students lining the street since. He suspects the ritual was banned, though the university said students are still allowed to jacket-slam.
Frosh week on campuses around the country has become minefields for controversy. In some cases, orientation leaders are reprimanded for “rape chants,” in others, they are criticized for going over the top with limitations.
“We live in a much more, open, sexualized … society, especially at the younger level, so some would say, ‘Don’t drink and don’t have sex.’ This is not realistic. But what you do need to do, I think, is educate people about what is acceptable behaviour,” said Wayne MacKay, a professor of law at Dalhousie University who chaired a report released in December on the culture of safety, respect and consent at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
Saint Mary’s University asked for the report after a video emerged last year showing orientation leaders at the school singing a song condoning non-consensual sex with underage girls.
“The people that are organizing and structuring the orientation themselves really provide the leadership role, which is why the chant issue is problematic,” he said.
Recommendations in the report included a redesign of orientation week, revising the university’s sexual assault policy and addressing students’ drug and alcohol use.
In London, Ont., Western University’s student newspaper came under fire this week after publishing a series of articles focusing on drinking games, drug use and borderline sexual harassment in the paper’s annual Frosh Issue.
In The Gazette’s latest edition, one article, called “Drugs: Advice for your Western experience,” discussing the “art” of taking drugs and debating the pros and cons of taking marijuana, cocaine and psychedelic mushrooms. Another, called “So you want to date a teaching assistant?” recommended students flirt with and “Facebook stalk” teaching assistants.
The school’s administration expressed disappointment in the TA article and others in the London community called the articles offensive.
Iain Boekhoff, the paper’s editor-in-chief, insists the edition and articles were meant to be “light-hearted” and address issues that get brushed under the rug during frosh week, called “O-Week” at Western.
“We don’t have, in practice, a dry [no alcohol] O-Week by any means. … People dance around it. We’ve directly addressed it by openly mocking what happens during O-Week and the policy and engaging in a thoughtful debate on it,” Mr. Boekhoff said.
The university needs to open up discussions about drugs and alcohol, particularly during orientation week, he said. If students aren’t comfortable talking about drugs and alcohol, yet still take them, the situation is more dangerous, he said.
At Western, along with a “dry” frosh week policy, starting Aug. 31 and running until Sept. 6, the university requires its 800 orientation leaders to sign a contract. The terms of the contract include abstaining from alcohol and illegal drugs, not promoting alcohol consumption or engaging in sexual activity with first-year students, and not leading cheers or participating in activities deemed discriminatory or offensive.
Students also must agree not to participate in activity or behaviour that may “negatively portray academics” at Western, according to Sam Kilgour, Western’s University Students’ Council vice-president, student events.
This includes banning volunteers from physically touching anything with alcohol imagery on it.
“They’re not allowed to pick up anything that might be an alcoholic label,” Mr. Kilgour said. “Our volunteers help move in all of the first year students and sometimes those student pack things in wine boxes. In that case, our volunteers are instructed to not touch the box.”
This policy is in place to avoid risking a photo that could be “spun” negatively and harm the university’s reputation, he said.
Mr. Kilgour said Western aims to keep its orientation week as accessible and inclusive as possible and safeguards are put in place to ensure the week is a success.
While safety is important, universities are also aware their reputations are at stake, said Jessica McCormick, national chairwoman of the Canadian Federation of Students.
And with reputations come alumni donations.
“Alumni come back and they’re like, ‘Wow, this is really unlike what I remember,’” said Taylor Mann, who graduated from Queen’s this year and previously worked as the university student government’s communications director. “Honestly, in some cases that’s good because some of the traditions were completely over the top.”
But now, he worries orientation events are becoming too watered down, in an attempt to mitigate risk.
“I actually disliked my frosh week. Mostly because it was too … peppy,” Mr. Mann said. “I like sort of having more intensity, and it just didn’t really do anything for me.”