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.


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.

Three pieces of advice for aspiring interns in the publications industry.

As many people know, before I became a full-time news editor I started out as an unpaid intern for a small communications company. People don’t even need to know me personally to know that; most people assume that any journalist who has broken into the field in the past ten years started out as an intern. Unpaid internships are increasingly common, especially in the suffering publications field. There are many mixed opinions on unpaid internships. Personally I do NOT think they are morally okay, but I also understand that they are an inevitability and CAN, if managed correctly, serve a good purpose. However, after experiencing a not-so-great internship and then working for a company that offers some of the best internships I have ever witnessed, I have some advice for recent or soon-to-be grads, or anyone looking for an internship in the publications industry (unfortunately my advice is best-applied to Ontarians).

1. Don’t look for an internship where you will only be a writer, copy editor or contributor.

Why [not]? This seems weird — you want to write/edit, correct? So you should be doing just that. However, a little-known fact about the Ontario Employment Standards Act [ESA]’s rules on unpaid internships is that you have to be actually learning something in your internship.

From the ESA: “The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school; The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.” If you are not gaining actual marketable skills that you may add to your resume, your internship is using you only for free work and you will not come out with a better-looking resume.

Look for: an internship where you will be acting as an assistant to writers and editors — not assisting them in the sense that you get their coffee, but assisting them in their other duties such as fact-checking. You should be an integral part of the team, which means remote internships in which you contribute pieces from your bedroom (which I did) are not real internships.

2. Do not trust an employer who tells you that you may/will get a full-time job at the end of your internship.

Why [not]? This is the kind of internship where interns feel like they are on a sort of “trial” period to see if you are actually fit for the job. You know where this should actually be determined? In an application and interview. Your portfolio and interview should speak for themselves. No, you can’t tell everything from a resume, portfolio or interview, but can anyone in any industry? No one sees engineers hired on a basis of working for free for the first 6-12 months and then if it “works out” they will have a salary. And giving even a hint of a job on the other end of the internship is not only cruel, it’s illegal.

From the ESA: “Your employer isn’t promising you a job at the end of your training.” Not only should you not believe the employer if they do this, you should probably steer clear from them. This means that they’re willing to disregard part of the Ontario Employment Standards Act — someone who thinks they are above the rules, and not someone you want to work for.

Look for: An employer who provides very specific stipulations on the length of your term, and an employer who can answer in the interview what his or her previous three interns have gone on to do. If they keep it general (“They’ve all gotten jobs,”) ask them to be a little more specific — where did they get jobs? In the publications industry? Did you provide a reference?

3. Your employer shouldn’t hold you to the same standards that they would hold a paid employee.

Why [not]? Okay, this is tricky. Yes, your employers should hold you to a high standard (think of them like a professor or teacher). They should also expect a regular commitment out of you and for you to not abuse time off, to come and go as you please, etc. However, an employer who does not pay you should not give you grief about calling in sick or needing a day off to go to an appointment. It should hardly even be a question if you’re allowed to take that afternoon off to go to a dentist. If you get a paid job in the middle of your term, your employer should not attempt to negotiate with you and/or force you to stay. Most importantly, your employer should not expect mandatory overtime outside of the hours they have set for you. Looking for a paying job in itself is a full-time job when you’re trying to break into publications, so anything that demands more than 40 hours a week from you is not an employer that cares about the future and education of its interns.

This actually isn’t in the ESA. This is just common decency.

Look for: An employer who clearly outlines the hours during the week that you will work. Ask in the interview if you will have to adhere to the same process as paid employees for requesting days off. As if you will ever have to work overtime. If the answer is yes, be wary.

I don’t want to make anyone shoot themselves in the foot while they’re fresh out of school and desperate to get into the field. The fact is, we are all young and desperate at one point, so we will often throw our standards away for the sake of something that seems like work. The problem is that many of us end up with six months under our belt of having learned nothing new and being very exploited by employers who won’t offer any valuable reference in the long run.

Respect yourself. If you’re not going to be paid, assure that your employer will be held to a lawful standard.

On Richard Kachkar, retribution and “not criminally responsible”

It was a sad day for Christine Russell on March 27 as she listened to a judge rule that Richard Kachkar, the man who killed Russell’s police officer husband Ryan with a snowplow two years ago, was not criminally responsible for his actions.

Kachkar had been evaluated by three top psychiatrists, one of whom had been hired by the crown.

Russell’s death followed Kachkar’s early morning break from a homeless shelter as he went on to run through the snowy streets barefoot with no jacket, yelling about “Chinese technology,” Facebook and the Taliban. The psychiatrists on trial found that Kachkar was experiencing severe psychosis at the time.

Christine Russell has not disclosed her opinions on the legitimacy of Kachkar’s illness or mental state. She has, however, expressed that her husband, killed in the line of duty, “deserved better,” and that the ruling will follow her and her young son for the rest of their lives, that there is no closure and that knowing that Kachkar is “free” will haunt her son. She is urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper to push forward a bill that will tighten restrictions on people found to be not criminally responsible for crimes committed.

While Russell’s grief should be taken into account for her statements, her reaction has made me worry about our country’s current attitude toward mentally unhealthy “criminals” and the pedestal on which we place police officers.

Russell repeated that her husband was killed in the line of duty upon giving her reactions to the media. She also produced a family photo during the trial and asked Richard Kachkar to look at her family.

Mrs. Russell does not appear to understand that a person who is unable to appreciate the impact of what they’re doing certainly cannot appreciate the grief of a family without a father. Every death is tragic, and Ryan Russell certainly died a hero, but the tragedy of a death does not correlate with the intent of the killer.

More disturbingly, Christine Russell seems to have somewhat of a desire for revenge against mister Kachkar. I am sure that many have remarked, maybe even to the widow herself, that even finding Richard Kachkar guilty of first degree murder would not have given her the “closure” that she so craves. Her husband is still gone. As for how her four-year-old son copes with the loss of his father, that is up for Christine to decide how she wishes to approach the issue.

If she frequently tells her son that his father was killed by a bad man who is walking free now, of course it will strike fear into the heart of the young boy.

However, if she tells her son that her father was killed by a very sick man who did not mean to do something so awful and is getting the help that he needs and we hope he will never do it again, that is obviously different. It will teach her son to sympathize and not to fear the mentally ill, and instead of fearing for his own safety to hope that mister Kachkar gets better and that no family has to go through what his family did.

I fear that Christine Russell will teach her young son to be fixated on revenge from a very young age, and that he will become a young Bruce Wayne, minus the billionaire superhero part, forever searching for a feeling of completeness that can never be filled.

We must learn to divorce ourselves from the very legitimate emotions of the victims and their families when being critical of the perpetrators’ mental states. How angry someone is at someone else should not affect whether or not someone gets a fair chance at rehabilitation.

Lip service to mental illness is not the final frontier

It seems you can’t pick up a student newspaper, hear a student council election speech or pass by a campus bulletin without seeing or hearing the words “mental health.”

Mental health: we need to talk about it. Mental health: it’s as important as physical health. Mental health: erasing the stigma.

This is good, right? We do need to talk about mental health issues, especially among university students. I first noticed the increased saturation of conversations about mental heath at my alma matter, Wilfrid Laurier University, following a tragic and terrifying residence fire in my freshman year, 2009, which resulted in the death of one student, a well-liked varsity athlete. The fire was ruled as a suicide the following school year, and residence life dons were subject to more thorough training to recognize issues similar to the ones which lead to the tragedy.

The problem I now see is that “mental health” has become a new buzz-term said over and over by people who either don’t understand or don’t want to talk about the severity of mental illness.

In attempting to remove the “stigma” of mental illness, we’ve also avoided talking about the parts of mental illness that are downright ugly.

The words “mental health” are used in such general, nonchalant ways and as a result all mental health problems are regarded as homogeneous, with homogeneous solutions. Campus “experts” often cite class stress, separation anxiety from home, adjustment to a new life and relationship problems as common issues for students, and while these certainly need to be addressed, it seems that they are pussyfooting around some real big, significant problems — problems that maybe aren’t so easy to “just talk” about.

As many times as I have simply heard the words “mental health,” “issues,” and “stress,” and occasionally the words “depression” and “anxiety,” I could count on one hand the number of times I have heard the words “self-harm,” “suicide,” “disordered eating,” “addiction,” “abuse,” “post-traumatic stress disorder” or “assault” used in mental health campaigns.

Launching campaigns to assure people that they’re not alone and they’re not weird because they’re stressed out is all well and good, but there’s a difference between common anxieties shared by the vast majority of a student body and far grittier problems such as addiction.

While I definitely cooed at the notion of Laurier’s “puppy room” last December during fall 2012 exams, to hear that it was regarded as a “mental health” campaign only further emphasized to me that student mental health campaigns are still merely scratching the surface of true mental health problems. Not every problem can be solved with a puppy. In fact, most cannot.

Having someone to discuss your issues with is often invaluable, but that does not mean that it is helpful for everyone. Money being put toward mental health issues for post-secondary students should be put into more councillors equipped for dealing with very specific problems, not bubblegum poster campaigns.