Indigenous ceremony and community protests held on campus in response to LSOI event

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Photo by Safina Husein

The familiar campus controversy surrounding Lindsay Shepherd and the polarizing debate around freedom of expression was present once again this evening on Wilfrid Laurier University’s Waterloo campus.

The controversy stems from another event in the “Unpopular Opinion Speaker Series” hosted by Shepherd and her new club, Laurier Society for Open Inquiry (LSOI) — an unofficial campus club whose focus, as stated on their GoFundMe account, is to “promote intellectual curiosity, open inquiry and freedom of expression in the Waterloo region.”

The speaker invited to campus was Frances Widdowson, who gave a speech to approximately 30 individuals present at the event, entitled “Does University Indigenization Threaten Open Inquiry?”

Leading up to the event, Laurier Special Constables, Waterloo Regional Police and security guards set up gates, bag check and closed off the spaces surrounding Bricker Academic, where the event was being hosted.

In order to provide the necessary security, Laurier charged LSOI a fee of $5,473, according to Shepherd’s twitter account. The entire fee was fundraised on GoFundMe within less than 48 hours.

Kevin Crowley, director of communications and public affairs at Laurier, explained that Laurier has worked closely with the LSOI organizers in order to ensure the university is accommodating of the event while ensuring the organizers are aware of their responsibilities in using spaces on campus.

                  Photo by Garrison Oosterhof

“Laurier is, and always has been, a place where freedom of expression is encouraged and has welcomed critical dialogue, exploration of ideas, testing of ideas and challenging assumptions,” Crowley said.

“We want to continue to be all of those things while our number one obligation is to ensure the safety and security of the attendees, the participants, the speakers and so on. That’s why we have the security presence that we do have.”

After LSOI’s attempt at hosting their first event in the Unpopular Speaker series — which was set to feature Faith Goldy until a fire alarm was pulled, ending the event before Goldy’s talk could begin — Laurier revisited their campus booking policy, making minor changes.

“It was a matter of revisiting the policy … and making things clearer in the language. The ability to charge for services has always been in the policy, so that’s not new. It was seldom enforced previously, but we’re in an era now where we feel it’s appropriate given the nature of the some of the speakers coming to campus,” Crowley said.

The added security fees were not only put into place to cover security at the speaker’s event; however, they also took into consideration the protests that were planned by community groups once LSOI announced the event.

Photo by Garrison Oosterhof

A group of approximately 50 individuals gathered outside of Bricker Academic prior to the LSOI event in protest, including various members of Socialist Fightback Waterloo — a community group who took a large role in organizing the protest.

“Here in Waterloo and at Laurier in particular, we’ve had an acute mobilization of the far-right. LSOI, they’re not an explicit far-right group, but they’re clearly inviting people that are part of the Canadian far-right like Faith Goldy,” said Peter, an organizer of Socialist Fightback Waterloo, who wished to keep his last name anonymous.

“At this event, with a professor that’s actively questioning residential schools … we don’t think this is acceptable and we think we need to stand up as the Waterloo community against these things and show that these ideas are not acceptable.”

The Cord reached out to Shepherd; however, she declined to comment on the evening’s event and the corresponding protest. However, she was heard addressing the protestors’ chants to end racism as she entered the event:

“It’s about to start — you’re welcome to join but I know you won’t because you don’t like dialogue.”

Photo by Garrison Oosterhof

On the other side of campus, however, a contrasting, community-oriented atmosphere was found at the University Stadium gymnasium, where almost 200 individuals were gathered to celebrate the lives of Indigenous people.

Jean Becker, senior advisor of Laurier Indigenous Initiatives, said she began to organize the Gathering of Good Minds ceremony almost two weeks ago after she heard rumours of LSOI’s upcoming event.

“Even before we heard that Frances Widdowson was coming, some of our students in particular and some of my staff, were really feeling a lot of fear and anxiety because even when the conversation was just around free speech, it implicated Indigenous people right from the beginning,” Becker said.

“What does freedom of speech even mean? If your freedom of speech silences people, then what does that mean?”

Upon hearing about the unconfirmed speaker, Becker said she went ahead and booked the ceremony for today’s date, noting it was serendipitous to some extent that both events occurred on the same evening.

At first, Becker explored the possibility of inviting an Indigenous scholar in order to provide a counter argument; instead, she felt a celebratory ceremony would provide a space for the necessary healing to take place for those present.

“I felt that I wanted to do something to affirm Indigenization and to affirm being Indigenous; to say we are here — we’re not going away,” she said,

Photo by Garrison Oosterhof

The ceremony began with a sacred Indigenous Pipe Ceremony which included various speakers addressing those in attendance.

After, several individuals presented an Indigenous drum performance to which almost everyone present participated in by dancing around the drummers, further reiterating the sense of community present at the ceremony.

“I was deeply moved by tonight’s event, and its powerful example of community, healing, courage and belonging,” said Leanne Holland-Brown, dean of students at Laurier, in an email statement.

“I am so grateful to the office of Indigenous Initiatives for facilitating this opportunity to come together to affirm that our Indigenous students, faculty and staff are valued, respected and deeply appreciated at Laurier. I don’t doubt that tonight’s event — the values it upheld, and its unifying impact — will be the catalyst for important things to come, and I am grateful.”

 

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