Controversy arises over conference keynote speaker

Graphic by Fani Hsieh

Keynote speaker for the Wilfrid Laurier Brantford campus Criminology Student Association conference Danielle Robitaille has cancelled her presentation after open dialogue came out about the ethics of her appearance on the Wilfrid Laurier University Brantford campus.

Robitaille stirred up controversy after taking on the role as a defence lawyer for former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi who was tried and acquitted for sexual assault in 2014.

The CSA conference, which ran from March 6 to 9 as part of Laurier Brantford’s Research Week, showcases student research and aims to provide educational experiences for the Laurier community.

Robitaille was originally invited to speak to students about her work in the field of law. On March 7, the CSA published a statement saying Robitaille would no longer be presenting at the conference due to the concerns for the safety of her and other conference members.

“Last Friday Ms. Robitaille was informed of organized efforts to disrupt her presentation. Citing concern for group and personal safety, as well as concern over compromises to open and balanced discourse, Ms. Robitaille elected to cancel her speaking engagement for the keynote event,” read a post on the CSA’s official Facebook page.

On March 3, after Robitaille was announced as one of the conference’s keynote speakers, the Advocates for a Student Culture of Consent (ASCC) created a Facebook page entitled We Believe Survivors: a Call to Action at Laurier Brantford. The Facebook page was created as a resistance to the conference’s keynote.

“We believe that this event not only decenters this work, but actively challenges the trajectory that Laurier has been creating around Gendered Violence,” read the group’s Facebook post.

The group also created a letter template for those wanting to voice their concerns to the university administrators and leaders about the impact this event could allegedly create.

Laurier’s sexual violence support advocate Sarah Scanlon provides support and access to resources for survivors and others impacted by sexual and gender-based violence. Also part of the Diversity and Equity Office, Scanlon voiced her concerns about the event and offered support and resources to those who felt impacted by the announcement of the keynote speaker.

“[The DEO] understands that she worked alongside lead defence lawyer Marie Henein in the Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault trial and that was included in the conversation that was put out … that was the information that was included and made aware to people,” Scanlon said.

According to Scanlon, the priority of the DEO is to recognize those who have been impacted by gender-based violence and to access support advocacy and resources. Scanlon noted that regardless if Robitaille attended the conference or not, there was an increase of conversations surrounding sexual assault occurring around the Laurier Brantford campus.

“We knew and witnessed impacts regarding sexual violence and individuals feeling triggered and our priority as the DEO is to promote a culture of caring and sexual ethics on campus,” she said.

In her personal response to the keynote speaker, Scanlon noted that university members must uphold a culture where gender and sexual violence is not tolerated, as noted in the Gender and Sexual Violence Policy. Scanlon also explained that she has witnessed how this event has created different forms of impact for survivors of sexual assault. Her biggest priority now is to ensure survivors are able to access support centres and resources.

“I think that not just the DEO, but our whole campus needs to work to uphold. I think we need to ensure that there is compassionate responses guided by trauma-informed principles that prioritizes safety, trust, choice, collaboration and empowerment for those who have been impacted by gender-based violence.”

The DEO in Brantford also held a safe space called “We Believe Survivors,” hosted by Sexual Violence Counsellor & Advocate, for individuals who wanted to speak their concerns or reactions in a non-judgmental space.

“We are here to support those who are most impacted by the increase in this conversation throughout our community,” Scanlon said.

Lauren Eisler, dean of the faculty of human and social sciences, explained she became aware of the conversations that arose after speaker Robitaille was announced as the keynote, after she received an email regarding the controversy. While Eisler noted that she did not have a role in the CSA conference or in their decision-making process, she explained that each year the CSA chooses a speaker based on a current topic surrounding the realm of criminology.

“This year, I think because of the Jian Gomeshi case, I think we might consider it a water-shed moment in trials around sexual assault … the outcome was unexpected to many people and it really drew attention,” Eisler said.

According to Eisler, Robitaille was planning on discussing gender differences and issues within the legal system as a female lawyer. However, because Robitaille was one of Gomeshi’s defence lawyers, Eisler noted it overshadowed what she was planning on presenting to students.

“We have a number of students who are very interested in going into law and so understandably not only are they interested in what kinds of issues will they face practicing law, but I think we really lost the opportunity to ask hard questions about the role of law in our society,” Eisler said.

“From my perspective, we could’ve been asking questions about law based on the concepts of equality so the rule of law that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law and is treated the same [sic] and can you actually have a legal system operate on a rule of law concept when we know there are challenges and not everybody is treated equally in the eyes of the law,” Eisler said.

Eisler said she felt deeply saddened by the events that took place as she believes the university lost an opportunity to engage in debate and dialogue with students. She said the university was also in the position where they wanted to encourage a dialogue in a way that students would feel safe and supported.

“I also understand that there were a number of students who were very upset by this potential. However, Laurier has a very strong support network for students who are facing issues and that was activated,” she said.

“I think, ultimately as students, as staff, as faculty, we all want the same thing. We want students to engage in debate and dialogues that have as strong an educational experience that they can.”

The university also released two statements regarding the issues and developments that arose regarding the conference, via email.

The first statement read: “Wilfrid Laurier University upholds the principles of free speech and strives to provide an environment in which people engage in critical and respectful dialogue. Be-cause various student groups and associations as well as faculty and staff members may invite speakers to campuses, occasionally there will be speakers at our university who address topics and ideas that are complex, challenging, controversial and at times polarizing. Supporting the right of speakers to express their opinions on campus does not necessarily imply that the university endorses their ideas. The right to free speech has boundaries and carries with it a responsibility to comply with relevant laws. Those who wish to exercise their right to freedom of speech at the university are encouraged to do so in a tolerant, civil and respectful manner.”

The second statement read: “When the university became aware of the keynote speaker who had been invited by the Criminology Student Association, in accordance with our gendered vio-lence policy and procedures, we encouraged our staff to ensure that supports were available to individuals who have been impacted by gendered and sexual violence.”

Eisler believes that now is the time to debrief and reflect on the events that took place and think about how the university can move forward.

“I hope going forward that everyone involved can think about and reflect on what happened and how to move forward from it because I think we all have the same goal in mind.”

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