To the St. Mary’s University frosh leaders, from a former frosh volunteer and an assault survivor.

Dear SMU frosh leaders,

It goes without saying that many in the world are watching you with gritted teeth and clenched fists. Congratulations — it’s rare that Canadian news reaches outside of Canada.

Let me preface this by saying that when I say “frosh volunteer” I don’t mean to say I was a frosh leader — “Ice Breakers” as we called them at my alma matter, Wilfrid Laurier University. I spent my latter years as a service volunteer. I represented, promoted and worked as a member of Foot Patrol, for which I was a year-round volunteer. We specialized in walking (and driving) people home after dark in well-equipped teams of two. Along with the other services represented at O-Week — BACCHUS, our safe-sex and alcohol awareness group; Peer Help Line, whose purpose is hopefully self-explanatory; EcoHawks, who promoted recycling and environmental friendliness; the Emergency Response Team; and the Student Food Bank — we helped to introduce incoming students to many of the programs and services that were there to help them through their time at Laurier. To me, that was the true spirit of O-Week, though I’m sure Ice Breakers would respectfully disagree.

Many consider the true spirit of O-Week, Frosh Week, whatever you want to call it, to be school spirit — discovering the clubs there are to join, meeting new people and, of course, cheering your hearts out. Cheers can be pretty darn silly, I’ll admit, and sometimes the content is downright nonsensical. But despite all of the nonsense I’ve witnessed, I’m confounded not only at how you were able to get away with your pro-rape cheer for several years, but why you conceived the idea in the first place.

I’m aware that as a assault survivor much of my opposition to this will be chalked up to “emotional response” and “biased.” At this point, though, I couldn’t care less.

For those of you who aren’t filled with remorse and regret over the cheer, you probably are resorting to the J-word. “Joke.” And “just.” “It’s just a joke.”

I’ve known many people who fight for the rights of the jokester. The right to categorize jokes as sacred. The idea that when we are on an elevated pedestal when we say something that makes others laugh — whether it’s in a circle of our peers or standing on a stage several feet above a crowd, microphone in hand.

But ask yourself — why do we laugh in the first place?

One has to grasp at straws to find an answer other than “rape is funny.” But we all know that it isn’t, don’t we? “Of course,” you say. “But it’s a joke?”

So again full circle — why is it a joke?

You probably can’t pinpoint the moment when you were taught that something like rape was funny. And I can’t blame you. It’s come at you from all angles. And yes, there are some areas of society in which that attitude is more saturated. But instead of pointing fingers at your parents, your sports coaches, your fraternities, I’m going to tell you who I blame:

I blame a culture that teaches young men that they’re entitled to the bodies of young women. I blame a culture that commoditizes sex. I blame a culture that makes one-liner jokes about pedophilia and child molestation such as “if there’s grass on the field, play ball” and I blame the culture that doesn’t even find that to be outrageous. I blame the culture that compares me to a Nazi because I refuse to see something like this as a joke. I blame our culture that doesn’t see a problem with Robin Thicke’s music video in which he uses nude women as props but sees a problem with a cheeky, student-made parody video in which the genders our switched. I blame people who purposely seek out drunk women because they are easier to have sex with. I blame comedians who say “Wouldn’t it be funny if she got raped right now?” and the people who laugh at them and the people who defend them. I blame a culture that allows “#itaintrapeif” to trend on Twitter. I blame schools that tell girls to consider breast reduction surgery if they’re sick of being made fun of for the size of their breasts. I blame the people who managed to convince everyone else that false rape accusations happen at the same frequency as actual rapes. I blame everyone and everything that dehumanizes women, treats them as objects, and makes them out to be prizes.

I blame the culture that told me it wasn’t rape because the person I was dating did it.

This isn’t to say you as individuals should walk away from this unscathed. But I hope that while you’re sitting through your mandatory sensitivity training — which I’m sure seems like a much worse punishment to you than it actually is — you start to think about the people and places and experiences from which you’ve learned all those little things, the little things that add up to the belief that that cheer was okay.

Then I want you to go about unlearning it. I’m not going to tell you how. You’re grown adults. Learn yourself.

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Being proud of where you came from? It’s optional.

You don’t have to know me well to know that one of my personal idols is Joni Mitchell. It’s not just that I’m a sucker for all things Canadian — her songs have brought me joy and comfort since I was a kid, and since getting older I’ve also loved her matter-of-fact, shooting-from-the-hip manner of speaking. She’s grown older, but is not a quiet mouse or gentle, grandmotherly type. Want proof? Her recent interview on Q with Jian Ghomeshi should tell you everything you need to know.

Here’s one thing I’m beginning to learn I have in common with Joni — we don’t look upon our hometowns with great pride. In fact, Joni Mitchell recently went on record denouncing any plans to be a part of any tributes to her in her hometown of Saskatoon — calling the city “extremely bigoted” and “unworldly.”

Saskatoon has decided to go ahead with tributes to Joni anyway, of course respectfully disagreeing with her assessment of their city.

Now, it’s hard for me to identify in direct parallels to this event because I’ve never been fully sure where my hometown is. I was born in 1989 in London, ON and by 1990 was a full-time resident of Kapuskasing, ON, where I lived for ten underwhelming years. At age ten I moved to what appeared to be a booming metropolis next to Kap — Timmins, ON. My formative years were spent getting buzzed with other angry adolescents at hardcore shows in Timmins’s shittiest dive bars and clomping around the cigarette butt-littered streets in my ski jacket for six months of the year. I was lucky enough to move to North Bay at age sixteen, and four hours South seemed to make all the difference. My parents moved once again in late 2008, this time to a suburb of Oshawa, but I was just about to spend four years in Kitchener-Waterloo attending university anyway (this was when my personal dilemma of answering the “where are you from?” question first arose).

I’m now a full-time resident of Toronto along with many of my other Timmins friends. It seems we can’t have one get-together in which we don’t dissolve into a conversation about how messed up the town can be at times, often masking our disdain with incredulity and laughter.

In late 2012, Timmins unveiled a not-yet controversial rebranding strategy. The reason the strategy was not so controversial was because no one really knew about its details. When two of my friends were bored waiting for a flight, they took a look at the details of the branding strategy and found themselves scratching their heads at both the juvenile branding techniques (seriously, even a word cloud would have been better) and the content itself — “Tim Hortons, not Starbucks”? “Steak, not sushi”? “Hockey, not ribbon dancing”? It was that kind of underlying discomfort — we could all sense that the true message of this rebranding was a very stick-in-the-mud, white-is-right, Western-centric, we-ain’t-no-girly-men-here kind of view of the town. Feeling disappointed, I vented my frustrations the only way I knew how — through writing. To my surprise, my letter was published. The outrage was unsurprising at first — but it built into an issue that continued to be discussed and rehashed in council meetings and local news (only stretching on even longer when my awesome drunken friends decided to write a song about it — oh, and they managed to get CBC coverage while your’s truly sat in her Toronto-based castle made of golden newspapers drawing designs for her CBC tattoo).

For awhile I cushioned my statements when discussing the issue, eager to prove that I was proud of where I came from — very proud, in fact! I loved living a simple life of sledding down tiny hills in the winter and springing into murky lakes in the summer, watching kids zoom into the school parking lots on their snowmobiles every morning, the stench of gas soaked into their coats. I told myself that I loved being a small-town, Northern girl.

But every time I visit back there’s this lingering feeling of subtle hostility — was Timmins proud of me? What had they done to encourage and foster my own skills? There had always been an underlying elitism for pickup trucks, four-wheelers and Molson Canadian, one that I even took part in as a team. There was even, in my eyes, somewhat of a disdain for higher education throughout much of the town. It was optional. Take a fifth year of high school, work for awhile. With Timmins’ booming economy, you could easily get a job in the mines — or even the local inbound call centre — and buy your first house in no time. Settle down with your sweetheart. Add a dog and a yard, boom, you have your permanent life.

It’s a place where people I know have had rocks kicked at them because they were gay.

I’ve resigned to the fact that I’m not Timmins’ prodigal daughter. Maybe North Bay and Kapuskasing want me, but Timmins does not. For awhile I felt lost, like I didn’t really hae a hometown. I’d always identified Timmins as the fill for that blank because, well, 10-16 are important years. All my friends were from Timmins. I had my first kiss in Timmins, got my first job there and had my first taste of alcohol. Now essentially a pariah, I really felt I had no place there.

Recently, following some extended family drama, someone I know made the decision to distance himself from his own family for much of the same reasons I’d condemned Timmins in my letter. Though I worried at first that he would find himself a man without a family, he has seemed happier than ever. Perhaps that’s because he has his own family now, one that he’s made for himself. He may not be proud of where he comes from, but where he comes from is not proud of him — why do them that favour?

I’ve told myself the same thing. Instead of worrying about having a fill for the blank next to the “hometown” question, worry about where I am now. Instead of struggling to find something good to say about the place that didn’t support my dreams and my uniqueness, focus on finding good things to say about myself.

You don’t have to be proud or pay lip service to your hometown. Especially if they weren’t proud of you.