Why Robitaille’s keynote cancellation isn’t depriving students of intellectual discourse

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Controversy has been breaking out as of late at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus in light of the Criminology Students’ Association’s plan to have Danielle Robitaille, Jian Ghomeshi’s defence lawyer, as a keynote speaker at their annual conference on International Women’s Day.

In last week’s issue of The Cord, Lauren Eisler, dean of the faculty of human and social sciences, said that she believed Robitaille would be discussing gender differences and issues within the legal system as a female lawyer.

This created a tonne of backlash from a student collective called ASCC (Advocates for a Student Culture of Consent), as they found the event “actively challenges the trajectory that Laurier has been creating around Gendered Violence,” as per written on a Facebook page they created to discuss the problems surrounding this event.

As a result, Robitaille cancelled her keynote and the topic of free speech is now all that seems to be talked about on Laurier Brantford’s campus.

Several faculty members have spoken out on social media or to media outlets that this was a missed opportunity for students to have “tough conversations” or an “intellectual dialogue.”

While a lot can be said about free speech and safe spaces, that isn’t the piece I want to focus on.

I want to focus on that so-called missed opportunity for intellectual dialogues about women in the legal system that apparently all the criminology students won’t be able to partake in.

I’ve been to several keynote presentations, in both the academic and journalism worlds, and they always go the same way.

The speaker speaks at an audience for a period of time and then they open up the floor for a specific amount of questions afterwards.

A keynote presentation is not an opportunity for an intellectual dialogue between the audience and the speaker. It is an opportunity to be talked at and then the lucky few who make the cut can ask questions at the end.

Sure, after the audience clears out, people will talk to their friends or colleagues about what they just saw, but is that the meaningful discourse that everyone’s talking about, here?

So, with that said, why didn’t the CSA plan for a “Women in Law” panel, opposed to highlighting one female lawyer, who really doesn’t represent every single woman who works in the legal system?

Find different female lawyers, maybe a prosecutor, a family lawyer, a lawyer who does pro bono work and sit them at a table with Robitaille. Let the audience observe the dialogue that occurs between them. No scripts, no chances to plan ahead of time because there are several voices controlling the conversation.

Last year, at a post-secondary journalism conference in Toronto, I saw a panel of female journalists that I still remember today.

There was a female sports journalist, a news anchor and a long-form journalist.

They all had very different perspectives to share about their diverse experiences and watching them swap stories, agree and disagree, was so intellectually challenging. I also got to see different versions of female role models in the job that I want for myself.

So to say that Brantford missed out on an intellectual debate or discourse because one woman couldn’t come share her story is a stretch.

And by only focusing on her, and by giving her ultimate power — yes — you are sensationalizing the Jian Ghomeshi case, a dark piece of Canadian history that has undoubtedly had an impact on whether or not survivors of sexual assault file reports in Canada.

Had there been more thought put in about how to showcase the experiences of women who work in law on International Women’s Day, perhaps this event could have actually happened in a way that encouraged intellectual discourse without making those in the Laurier community who have experienced sexual violence feel like Laurier doesn’t care about them


  1. Corey Robert Jones says:

    Your rationale for why a keynote presentation doesn’t contribute to intellectual discourse leaves me absolutely dumbfounded. “A keynote presentation is not an opportunity for an intellectual dialogue between the audience and the speaker. It is an opportunity to be talked at and then the lucky few who make the cut can ask questions at the end.” This is like saying that lectures don’t count as intellectual discourse. Just because students may not have the chance to ask questions does not mean the lecturer is not providing intellectual discourse. The reason people lecture is because they have knowledge and experiences that are beyond the knowledge and experiences of the average person. By not allowing an individual who has an enhanced knowledge and experiences within a specific field to speak you are limiting the opportunities for students and average people to gain knowledge that is not readily available in textbooks. This is absolutely limiting intellectual discourse. Who cares who she defended, the fact is that she is one of the most successful people in her field and students and average people will undoubtedly benefit from hearing her speak.

  2. I agree with the above comment. It is ironic too because Danielle Robitaille is a perfect example of a successful woman in a MALE dominated field, but because she took on a hard case, one in which she was successful… people are triggered? You cannot advocate for equality and then smite a woman for being successful in a court case that received significant media attention.

    If people had any knowledge of the case and/or how the judicial system works, the testimonies of the women were faulty at best. The burden of proof is a fundamental component of a functioning democracy, but I guess being accused of something must mean they did it! But, I digress.

    Nevertheless, by forfeiting the chance to have this successful woman speak about women in the workplace is absolutely limiting intellectual discourse! Here, Laurier has clearly limited intellectual discourse in an area where greater discourse is needed! Shameful.

  3. Who are you to judge what would, or would not be, intellectual discourse for an individual? This type of elitist, “I know better than thou” attitude is the entire reason why so many people are annoyed, angry and disaffected.

    The fact that a group wanted a reputable, successful attorney to speak on campus to them and their guests, about topics which they find interesting, is nobody else’s business. This group did absolutely nothing wrong, they followed all procedures, and invited a guest who plays an important role in society. Regardless of one’s feelings on a legal case (which it need be highlighted they were not subject to, as they were not on the jury nor involved at all in the case), you do not get to use privilege to prevent others from what otherwise might be a very positive, productive and helpful information session. This type of needless censorship is disturbing amongst a generation that has grown up with access to information at their fingertips.

    THIS is why people are upset – the point was sorely missed by the author.

  4. This is a sad article, simply because this is a very selfish, dangerous and flawed way of looking at the world. If someone is sexually assaulted, they could be triggered by Robataille, and I get that. But only looking at this situation through that lens is fundamentally flawed. Why would you want to hinder someone’s opportunity to learn, out of fear? This talk was about a woman in a successful position trying to help other women. You can’t assume intellectual discourse will be unsuccessful before it even happens. This is a cowardly, unintelligent view of the world that is shared by many, and limits the educational environment for all.

  5. Although I can agree with some of Bethany’s points here, the other commenters have nailed the issue on the head.
    Keynote addresses may not offer much opportunity for discussion, but they do plant seeds. We decide what we do with those seeds. They can become our private conversations and contemplations if we let them. Even if the seed is planted by a dissenting opinion, our garden will still be the richer for it… and those dissenting seeds can offer the most fruit if we let them.
    Free speech is important- but it’s for all. It doesn’t mean we can or should ignore opinions and people we disagree with.
    Robitaille is a hot topic- all the more reason to see what the fuss is about. She IS a professional working woman in a predominantly male field. She DID work a shitty case- but that doesn’t mean she had to like it. Every career entails rotten fruit and Laurier missed the opportunity to possibly learn about some of that rot (and maybe even how to avoid it). Laurier missed its opportunity to showcase an open-minded and engaged student body. We missed out.

    “Ultimate power”? Please… This article and the surrounding controversy takes power from the female lawyer and gives it to her case and client, and she is neither of those.

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