News | McGill shuts down women-only gym hours negotiations

Students had come close to reaching compromise with Athletics

The University has effectively shut down attempts of students and McGill Athletics to reach a compromise over the women-only hours proposal, according to Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan.

Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens communicated the administration’s decision to Stewart-Kanigan on March 16, attributing it to a stance that the proposal, as well as any compromise reached, would be unfavourable to the University. According to Athletics and Recreation Executive Director Drew Love, this is due to lack of “reasonable need for modesty.”

The students behind the proposal, Soumia Allalou and Raymond Grafton, began communicating with members of the McGill Athletics as well as Stewart-Kanigan to address the issue of women feeling uncomfortable exercising alongside men in the gym.

Allalou said she met on March 12 with a McGill Athletics staff member, who proposed that the McGill Varsity Weight Room might be usable as a women-only space at certain times.

“[McGill Athletics Manager of Marketing and Communications Jill Barker] told me that [the room] could open a few hours a week, and this is the best solution she sees,” Allalou explained. “She pretty much agrees with women’s hours, and she didn’t really see it as such a big problem.”

“I think there [are] problems when a man is deciding how a woman should feel about her body and what she feels is modest for herself.”

However, according to a statement released by Stewart-Kanigan on March 18, Dyens informed her during a March 16 meeting that “the negotiations were being shut down completely.” Realizing that the students behind the proposal were not aware of this, Stewart-Kanigan insisted that Dyens meet with them before issuing a public statement regarding the University’s stance on women-only gym hours.

“It was made clear that the ending of talks on finding a compromise [or] solution on women’s hours was not for any logistical or cost-based reason, it was made on a purely principled stance that further negotiations on the subject could never lead to an outcome that was acceptable to McGill,” Stewart-Kanigan told The Daily.

At a meeting with Stewart-Kanigan and Allalou on March 19, Dyens showed no change in the University’s stance against the students’ proposal or any sort of compromise directly related to it. “He basically told us that he’s not going to allow it,” Allalou told The Daily, saying that Dyens explained he was against “segregation.”

“He sees one way to run McGill, and he wasn’t really open to the fact that I had endorsements from a lot of groups,” said Allalou. “He’s basically stopping it as a matter of principle.”

The administration has said that it looks favourably on increasing the harassment policy measures and looking into how to make the gym generally more comfortable for everyone, but does not look favourably on targeting specific groups who might feel uncomfortable within the gym.

“We encourage and will continue to encourage all our patrons to engage respectfully with one another, just as we expect all members of our community to treat each other equitably and respectfully in whatever context,” Dyens and Love wrote in a statement sent to The Daily.

“[The University was] unable to provide any tangible steps as to how this new strategy of addressing harassment would be different from the current strategy, which does state that it is a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and bullying,” said Stewart-Kanigan.

Love maintained the University’s stance that it does not want to provide accommodations to certain groups. “It’s not our intention to specifically provide women-only hours in a facility,” Love told The Daily, emphasizing that the University wants to keep all of its facilities “secular and coeducational.”

When asked about the existence of women-only pool hours, Love said, “I think most people would agree that the pool, with the nature of the type of clothing or swimwear that is appropriate in a swimming pool […] creates a reasonable need for modesty.”

He continued, “I don’t think that’s the case for looking at modesty in a fitness centre or other centres, where, in fact, there is no limit to the amount of clothing or other things that an individual can wear.”

“I think there [are] problems when a man is deciding how a woman should feel about her body and what she feels is modest for herself,” Allalou noted. “It’s not up to somebody else to judge […] what modesty is. […] It’s up to the individual, I think.”

While SSMU has not currently taken a stance on women-only gym hours, Stewart-Kanigan expressed that it falls within the mandate of her portfolio to “publicly stand against the blocking of discourse and efforts to reach compromises with the University led by students advocating for issues that are significant to them.”

“The students who are engaging in these kinds of negotiations are going above and beyond to advocate for student interests to the University and to effect institutional change in what they believe is in the best interests of other students,” she said.

Stewart-Kanigan added, “To pose these additional barriers of inconsistent and unclear chains of command and decision reversals and significant changes undermines these students’ efforts to continue advocating for student interests.”

Overall, Allalou expressed disappointment in the administration’s reaction, particularly when the students were only “steps away from a solution that maybe most people would have agreed to.”

—With files from Igor Sadikov