With public accusations of racism launched at one faculty over a contentious frosh theme, this year’s perennial orientation has been marked by a controversy that raises questions of oversight and possible structural changes to frosh in the years to come.
The dispute around the Management Undergraduate Society’s (MUS) Tribal Frosh theme arose several days before frosh festivities were scheduled to start. As part of their publicity for the event, the MUS released a video showing McGill students in costumes and face paint depicting four indigenous tribes–the Maori, Inca, Zulu, and Maasai.
The video immediately drew accusations of racism and cultural insensitivity; on Thursday, August 19, former SSMU Counsellor Sarah Woolf posted a Facebook callout to protest the Tribal Frosh. On August 21, she followed up with an online appeal to protest MUS frosh, in which she suggested writing letters to MUS and SSMU executives, as well as to campus media. Some hours later, MUS executives called Woolf to schedule a meeting to discuss the matter.
Irkar Beljaars, producer of CKUT’s Native Solidarity News and a Mohawk himself, attended the meeting. Beljaars pointed out the heavy drinking that characterizes most frosh activities as a point of contention. “I wanted the organizers to understand that alcoholism–the battle with the bottle–is a very big issue in indigenous communities around the world,” he said. Multiple sources have said that the meeting’s atmosphere was tense, and ended abruptly.
The next morning, MUS President Céline Junke posted an apology on the MUS website, saying that frosh coordinators “never had any intention of portraying tribes in a disrespectful manner and deeply regrets any offense this may have caused.”
MUS also removed all Tribal Frosh online promotional material and changed its theme to “Superheroes.” After the theme was changed, Woolf published a note online reading: “congratulations…to MUS for hearing the concerns of McGill students…and responding appropriately. Changing the theme of such a huge event on a few days notice is no easy feat, so a serious tip of my hat to the folks at MUS!”
A further dispute arose after outgoing Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) president and current engineering senator Andrew Doyle posted an open letter to Woolf on his Facebook account. The letter, in turn, accused Woolf of racism and of “summon[ing] the Oka Mohawk community to picket Management” and contended that the sole reason for the change of the MUS frosh theme was because of threats or violent protest that Doyle deemed “terrorism.” Junke says that the claims of threats are not “true in the slightest,” and that the meeting was “respectful.” Numerous messages sent to Doyle for comment were not returned.
Administration officials have begun to assess both policy and procedural changes following the controversy. The administration has no application or vetting process for undergraduate society frosh, other than the customary security applications that accompany the booking of all campus space.
Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson expressed concern about the current system in the wake of this year’s events.
“I am wondering whether or not the situation of frosh, structurally, makes it impossible for students to manage the entire event,” he said, adding that the issue would be discussed at an annual review of first-year orientation events.
Officials at the office of Student Services were reluctant to discuss policy changes, but stressed forthcoming changes to the consultative process that accompanies the planning of undergraduate frosh events.
One such change would include the incorporation of McGill’s Social Equity and Diversity Education office (SEDE) into the planning of frosh. Veronica Amberg, SEDE’s chief coordinator, said that while SEDE’s role in frosh planning is only beginning, her office was “concerned about these recurring froshes, and hoped that SEDE could assist in making frosh “inclusive and non offensive.”
SEDE is scheduled to meet Thursday with the office of Student Services and the McGill First People’s House.